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Conflicts and crises mean Food Safety vigilance is as important as ever in 2015

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The incidence of foodborne and waterborne diseases among Palestine refugees has been decreasing steadily since UNRWA records began. However, a slight upturn between 2013 and 2014, which can be attributed to the conflicts in Syria and Gaza, indicates the importance of ongoing vigilance.

Two important indicators for food and water safety are diarrhoea and viral hepatitis. UNRWA data shows a marked decrease in the reported cases of diarrhoea since 1958. In 1958, more than 12,000 cases were reported per 100,000 people a year. This decreased steadily until 1996, when it became stable at around 2,000 cases per 100,000 people a year (see accompanying chart). The same trend is observed regarding viral hepatitis (see accompanying chart). However, there have been increases in diarrhoea between 2013 and 2014 and viral hepatitis between 2011 and 2013 due to the deterioration of the living conditions of Palestine refugees in Syria and Gaza as a result of conflict.

Food safety is theme of World Health Day 2015, celebrated on 7 April, and UNRWA is using the occasion to raise awareness about the importance of ensuring the food on peoples’ plates is safe to eat. Events at UNRWA schools, health centres and other community centres will share simple messages about how to keep food safe.

Foodborne illnesses can be caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances in contaminated food or water. Unsafe food can cause more than 200 diseases, as diverse as diarrhoea, viral diseases, reproductive and developmental problems, and cancers. These diseases kill an estimated 2 million people around the world each year.

“These diseases were prevalent in 1950s and 1960s, but rates have decreased with improved awareness about how to store and handle food, and better personal hygiene,” says UNRWA Director of Health Dr. Akihiro Seita. “Education on food safety issues at UNRWA health centres and schools, as well as community outreach activities have become more comprehensive. All these activities have been held in close cooperation with host countries and other stakeholders, such as the World Health Organization, NGOs and of course UNRWA donors. In addition, our surveillance system for communicable diseases has effectively monitored for outbreaks and responded in a timely manner. For example, in 2014, UNRWA staff quickly responded to, and controlled, a typhoid outbreak in Yarmouk camp in Syria. Further improvements can be attributed to improved environmental conditions, strict supervision of food commodities and water supplies by UNRWA and host countries, and increased awareness among refugees themselves.”

Yet these improvements do not allow for complacency.

“In emergencies, food and water safety measures can spiral out of control, at least during hostilities,” Dr. Seita explains. “The increase of hepatitis in Syria and diarrhoea in Gaza and Syria during emergencies, for example, is the clear evidence of the threat we still face. Still, we try our best to facilitate the delivery of hygienic and safe food. We also provide Palestine refugees in UNRWA collective shelters with hygiene kits, which make it easier for people living in crowded facilities to maintain a clean environment, which is essential for safe food.”

In addition to adapting health care to emergencies, UNRWA is considering further food safety issues that must to be addressed to help Palestine refugees live healthier lives.

“The exposure to carcinogenic substances in the form of food additives, preservatives and colorants must be seriously considered in awareness-raising efforts targeting refugees,” Dr. Seita explains. “Indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers is also prevalent in this region, which can expose people to serious risks through the consumption of effected fruit and vegetables.”

ABOUT THE UNRWA HEALTH PROGRAMME

More than 3.3 million Palestine refugees access UNRWA health services in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA services are funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. The Agency’s top five regular budget donors in 2014 were the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway.

Visit this photo gallery to see images of food safety activities in Jordan

Visit this photo gallery for more information about UNRWA emergency health care in Syria

Read about how UNRWA controlled a typhoid outbreak in Syria in 2014