During the three-week conflict in Gaza in 2009, Nimeh Hawwas, a Palestinian refugee from Gaza, lost her son Ashraf, her grandson Ahmad, and her home, which was demolished as a result of the shelling of a neighboring house.
The stress of such tremendous loss would weigh on anyone, but Nimeh, 65, knew that the kind of weakness and fatigue, confusion, and numbness that followed her into the spring of 2010 had to do with something more than just grief.
“I have always felt healthy despite my age, but a turning point in my health started when I learned about the death of my son Ashraf,” Nimeh recalls. “I felt something in my heart and I could not stand up. When I went to UNRWA’s health centre, I was shocked when they diagnosed me with both diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Nimeh’s son, Hasan, escorts his mother to the Sabra health centre for regular check-ups. “We do not have a history of such diseases in our family,” he explained. “But between the stress and trauma our bereaved family has been suffering from, and the impact of the ugly blockade and related economic trouble, many members of my family have been suffering from high stress and depression—including my sick mother.”
The blockade of Gaza, imposed in June 2007, has caused economic devastation on the 1.2 million Palestine refugees living there, including high levels of unemployment, poverty, and mobility constraints. Today, 80 per cent of the population is dependent on UNRWA for food aid and other basic services.
UNRWA staff nurse Mariam al-Hattab, one of the staff members working with Nimeh at the health centre, noted a remarkable increase in the registration of new diabetes and high blood pressure cases in the last five years. Like Nimeh and her son, Mariam attributes the reason for this rise to the blockade: most of the new cases suffer from growing poverty and food insecurity, and the result is a deadly increase in risk factors leading to the onset of non-communicable diseases.
According to UNRWA’s health department, diabetes and high blood pressure rates have increased from 6.7 per cent of screened cases before the blockade to 8.4 per cent since the blockade was imposed in 2007. These diseases are generally preventable with changes in diet and lifestyle, but in Gaza, many of the contributing factors are due to circumstances beyond the control of those who are most at risk.
For those patients like Nimeh, for whom preventative measures are no longer entirely helpful, UNRWA clinics are devoted to providing the best possible long-term care; ensuring that their diseases are manageable, and slowing their progression.
On the occasion of World Health Day, UNRWA is launching the “Life is Sweeter with Less Sugar” campaign to combat the alarming rise of diabetes and hypertension figures within the Palestine refugee community. Read more.