Medicines in Gaza are hostage to political rivalry that puts lives at risk

Man lying in bed is hooked up to dialysis machine

Political divisions and Israel’s siege have put lives in limbo.

Shadi Alqarra The Electronic Intifada

Ahmad Dahman, 60, is one of hundreds of patients who come to Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital to receive life-saving kidney dialysis treatment each week.

And like other patients, he is worried that his health and even his life are at risk because of persistent shortages in medicines and supplies needed for his treatment.

Al-Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza, along with other health facilities, continues to suffer shortages of medicines and equipment needed for dialysis and other treatments because of rivalry between Palestinian political parties, as well as the siege Israel has imposed on the Strip.

Doctors and patients alike have complained of such shortages for the past month and practitioners say lives are at risk.

Earlier in January, a new shipment of filters needed for dialysis reached Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint after the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank responded to calls by international organizations to ensure that essential supplies were sent to Gaza.


Dahman voices his frustration at the situation. “We are merely patients, who are helpless and in need for constant care,” he said. “I am wondering why the medicines needed come to us very late. I would like to say to all those concerned that we as patients have nothing to do with political rivalries between the parties.”

Ilham Hammash is a mother of six grown children and has been suffering for a few years from kidney failure. She was in the dialysis section for the treatments she receives three times per week. While lying on a hospital bed, with tubes connected to her body, she voiced her concern about the lack of medicines.

“I wonder why we always feel the shortage of medicines needed for dialysis,” Hammash said. “Isn’t it enough that we have been unable either to go abroad for a kidney transplant, or to do anything else?”

“When I have no dialysis, I feel very sick and unable to move, waiting for God’s mercy on me and on my family,” Hammash said, with her 29-year-old son Iyad beside her.

“At times of lack of medicines or equipment, we get highly concerned about my mother’s life,” Iyad said. “A great deal of worry rips through us. I think once the parties concerned here, mainly those in Gaza and those in the West Bank are united, the problem of shortages will come to an end.”

Gaza health officials say that the shortages problem goes back to 2008, one year after Hamas took control of the interior of the Gaza Strip. Over the past four years, the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross and similar groups have delivered medicines and other medical supplies to Gaza, but this has been inadequate. According to some estimates, the supply of medicines is 50 percent below actual requirements.

Hamas and Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, have been at loggerheads since 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah elements from Gaza. Since then, a caretaker government in the West Bank has remained in charge of Gaza’s health sector.

Deaths likely if shortages continue

Staff nurse Muhammad Shattat, who manages the dialysis department at al-Shifa hospital, told The Electronic Intifada that only 200 out of a total of 450 patients in his department’s care get the dialysis treatment they need.

“Only recently, we have managed to get brine and filters for the dialysis machines here,” Shatta said. “The gallons of brine we received only meet the need for a few weeks while we actually need a reserve for about three months, at least.” There are similar shortages of filters.

“This is not a proper situation and I can tell you that for the past four years, we have only been able to bring in the needed medicines after having asked for intervention by international bodies, including the World Health Organization and the Red Cross,” Shatta said. “I believe that this problem should come to an end once and for all, for we do fear some patients could pass away because the medicines are unavailable.”

The lack of medicines or components for the kidney failure cases is an example for the shortage of other medical supplies in Gaza such as medicines for cancer patients and some other disposable materials like sutures and syringes.

According to the Gaza authorities, there are 150 types of medicines and 140 other disposal materials that are still lacking in Gaza.

“A pronounced lack of cooperation”

“I can confirm to you that the shortage of medical supplies in the Gaza Strip has been very pressing for the past four years and so far it has not been resolved. The Palestinian Authority claims that a budget shortfall is part of the problem is false as medicines and other medical supplies should not be affected,” Dr. Munir al-Bursh, director general of pharmacy in the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip, told The Electronic Intifada at his Gaza City office.

Al-Bursh added that the shortage in supplies for the past four years has been estimated at $60 million, a $15 million shortfall each year. Such figures, according to al-Bursh, have not changed and the problem still persists, despite interventions by concerned international bodies.

The Palestinian Authority’s health ministry contends that the delivery of medical supplies to Gaza continues without interruption.

But the aid group Doctors without Borders recently stated that the problem of shortages is attributed to “a pronounced lack of cooperation” between Palestinian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza (“Gaza: Chronic Shortages of Drugs and Medical Supplies,” 17 November 2011).

The crisis caused goes far beyond dialysis, according to the statement, affecting patients in almost every area of care, including cancer treatment and psychiatric are. The drug shortages and the politicization of medicare care, according to the group, “are putting patients’ lives in grave danger.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.