UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) health services in war-torn Syria have responded with flexibility and resourcefulness to the unprecedented destruction and restrictions on clients, according to a new report released today. In its annual report, the UNRWA Department of Health says that with more than half of its health centres in Syria destroyed or non-functional, the Agency established ten ‘health points’ and intensified services at those clinics which are working.
Speaking at the launch of the report in Geneva, Dr. Akihiro Seita, UNRWA Director of Health, said: “It has been a huge challenge, but we have been able to respond to a devastating situation. We have established eight health points in Damascus and two in Aleppo. They have allowed us to continue desperately needed consultations, even though more than 50 per cent of our twenty-three clinics have been destroyed or rendered non-functional.” He went on to explain that “by moving health care out of some areas and away from established clinics, UNRWA has also been able to respond to the restrictions on movement that have affected beneficiaries. To date, we have vaccinated 23,583 children against polio.”
Moreover, the Agency has reassigned health professionals to facilities that are housing refugees, such as schools, so in some places UNRWA is able to provide medical services round the clock. Forty UNRWA health teams have received special training in emergency medical care. The Agency has also increased cash subsidies for UNRWA patients seeking treatment in non-UNRWA hospitals, “but weakened health systems and poor access to health care have seen outbreaks of infectious and communicable diseases such as polio and hepatitis increase”, according to Dr Seita.
"The context in which we deliver all our assistance in Syria, in health, education and relief and social services, has never been so grave”, said UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness. “We face unprecedented challenges, but we refuse to bend and will continue to find ways to support and serve Palestine refugees. With clinics destroyed or inaccessible, fear, desperation and despair are constantly with our beneficiaries and with our three thousand staff in Syria. But we will not give in to the counsel of despair.”
Meanwhile, the health situation facing 18,000 civilians in the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus, continues to deteriorate. The three UNRWA primary health centres in the camp are non-functional. There is severe food insecurity and an acute shortage of life-saving medicines. Only one quarter of the food requirements have been met by UNRWA food distributions in the past four months, increasing health risks. But despite the huge risks and constant interruptions, UNRWA has managed to deliver thousands of desperately needed food parcels inside Yarmouk.
Syria’s conflict has displaced over a quarter of a million Palestine refugees internally within Syria, with many facing multiple displacements and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Over 50,000 have sought refuge in Lebanon and over 10,000 in Jordan.
“UNRWA staff continue to operate heroically in all fields, especially Syria, providing life-saving services by adjusting service provision to emerging threats and challenges”, said Dr. Seita. “The protracted crisis of over six decades has resulted in significant health, food, shelter, education and livelihood deficits. The chronically low and poor social determinants of health have brought the physical, mental and social health of a generation of Palestine refugees close to a tipping point.”
UNRWA and the Annual Health Report
UNRWA has been the main provider of primary health care for Palestine refugees for over six decades. The report underscores the changing demographic and health profile of the refugees. There has been remarkable progress in reducing deaths and disease such as TB, pregnancy-related deaths and infant deaths from measles and meningitis. Life expectancy is growing, but aging populations are suffering from sedentary life styles and the global pandemic of non-communicable disease (NCDs), such as diabetes, hypertension.
The report describes the ongoing health reforms based on family health teams and electronic medical records (E-health), initiated by UNRWA to address the growing NCD burden. It gives evidence and statistics to demonstrate their positive impact in terms of increasing patient satisfaction, strengthened patient-provider relationships and disease control.