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Palestine refugee health as much at risk today as in 1950, says new report

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20 May 2011

Jerusalem

Palestinian refugees today face increasing health risks, even after decades of improvement through UNRWA’s health programme, according to a report released by the UN agency today.

While much progress has been made in key areas, says the report, social and economic problems and a rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes have led to acute health challenges for the almost 5 million refugees in UNRWA’s fields of operation.

High levels of poverty, unemployment, and social discrimination also badly affect refugee health, by limiting access to health care, for example.

Some progress, but challenges remain

The progress shown in the health of refugees is impressive, said Akihiro Seita, director of UNRWA’s health programme. The reduction of child mortality (Millennium Development Goal Four) is on track, he said, while UNRWA continues to achieve a near 100 per cent rate of immunization coverage.

“One important reason behind the progress is the remarkable commitment of UNRWA’s health staff - the dedicated doctors and nurses working in our clinics and mobile health services.” Seita said.

However, Seita said, the difficulties facing refugee health were paramount. The report cautions that with a rise in non-communicable diseases that are life-long, difficult to prevent and costly to control, UNRWA is increasingly unable to maintain adequate levels of medical care and assistance.

To address this challenge, UNRWA is introducing reforms in its health programme. It is hoped that a new approach, including a focus on primary health care at the community level and an emphasis on key preventive health approaches including life-style changes, will minimise the need for reductions in the agency’s health services.

Innovations in health service

This year’s report highlights a number of innovations taken in UNRWA’s five fields: Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

  • New-born screening for hearing impairment in Gaza

  • Integrating mental health and family protection in the West Bank

  • Improving rational use of drugs in Syria

  • Translating health reform into action, with focus on primary health care in Lebanon

  • Screening for phenylketonria (PKU) and hypothyroidism in Jordan

Health service critical, says Grandi

“This year’s report lists a number of achievements in the face of very difficult financial and operational circumstances”, said Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA.

“In this year of considerable change and economic uncertainty, UNRWA’s work is as relevant as ever. Our health programme is a critical component of the social and economic development of the nearly 5 million Palestine refugees we serve.

“Its mission – to protect, preserve and promote the health of Palestine refugees – is as critical in today’s Middle East as it was when UNRWA created.”