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Medicine in wartime: Life, death and Gaza

Medicine in wartime: Life, death and Gaza
3 min read
09 August, 2014
The embattled coastal strip suffers chronic shortages across the board, but a lack of drugs is life-threatening.
Israeli violence has accentuated medical shortages in Gaza [Getty]

Ahmad Abd al-Latif has been suffering from kidney failure for nine years. Three times a week, the 45-year-old Gazan visits al-Shifa hospital for dialysis, but most of the time the equipment he needs is not there.

Abd al-Latif and many other patients with kidney problems have to scavenge for medicines because of constant shortages at the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Umm Khidr's situation is not much better. The elderly grandmother suffers from a number of chronic diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Her blood pressure medicine is available from the Ministry of Health in Gaza - but she has to find the heart and diabetes medicines herself.

Abd al-Latif and Umm Khidr are not alone in Gaza, under a blockade and plagued by sporadic wars with Israel.

"There are shortages of 350 types of medicine, and 431 out of the 902 medicines used for surgery have run out because of the ongoing war," said Ashraf Abu al-Mahdi, head of the pharmacology unit at the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

The problem escalates

Dr Abu al-Mahadi told al-Araby al-Jadeed that some emergency medicines were extremely scarce because the recent war on Gaza had drained the Ministry of Health's stock.

     Over the past years we have learnt to overcome the persistent crisis of medical shortages, and total lack of some medicines.
- Dr Abu al-Mahadi

"Over the past years we have learnt to overcome the persistent crisis of medical shortages, and total lack of some medicines," he said. "We have provided basic medical services, but the continuous war and prolonged blockade have worsened the crisis."

A medical official in Gaza said international aid had helped the situation, but "there is not enough medicine for primary health care, cancer and infectious diseases”.

The bill for essential medicines needed every month in Gaza comes to $2.5 million.

Khalid Ibrahim, a pharmacist in downtown Gaza, described the state of the medical stockpile as distressing because only five percent of the medicines Palestinians need come into the strip because of Israel's crippling blockade.

"The destruction of the Megapharm factory in Beit Hanoun complicated the situation because the company used to produce medicines for the Gazan market," said Ibrahim. "This is no longer possible, and this has affected the lives of thousands of sick Gazans, who have no alternative source to get their medicine."

Local medical manufacturers can only produce five to ten percent of Gaza's total domestic need.

An official from the Masrouji Group, a Palestinian company that produces and imports medicine, said many of those injured in Israeli bombardment need long-term treatment with drugs that simply aren't available in the embattled coastal enclave.

"The companies working in Gaza only provide a modest amount of the primary care and drugs for chronic diseases that are needed in Gaza," he added.

Dr Khalil Abu Laila, head of Gaza's pharmacists' trade union, agreed that shortages were endangering the lives of the sick and injured.

"There’s a big difference between the needs of people and the medicines that are available, because many of the drugs in the warehouses are not needed in the pharmacies," he said.

Dr Abdallah al-Hashim, head of Birzeit Pharmaceuticals, said drug companies in the strip were not prepared for the war, and were unable to supply the drugs needed: "There is no capacity to produce medicine in Gaza given the current fragile economic situation caused by the blockade and the wars - but we are trying to provide a local alternative even if it is limited."

Many materials needed in the production of medicines are not available. "The Israelis only allow us to produce a small amount of drugs in conjunction with the large foreign companies because they stop the materials needed going into Gaza," said Hashim.

"It’s not in Israel's interest for us to produce drugs in Gaza because they want to force us to use drugs they make."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.