Two Million Lebanese Pound Treatment: How a Shock Diagnosis changed one life forever

11 November 2020
Buthaina Afana and her husband next to her. Buthaina a 59-year-old Palestine refugee from Nahr el-Bared Camp in Lebanon.

“In 2010, my feet and toes started to feel numb. It was like I couldn’t walk. I thought it was because of with my bones or spine, so I decided to visit a doctor," said Buthaina Afana, a 59-year-old Palestine refugee from Nahr el-Bared Camp.

Buthaina underwent a litany of tests and she was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "The doctor prescribed medication. I was so worried when I found out that the four injections I need every month would cost two million Lebanese pounds! We couldn’t afford such an expense. My husband is retired and we have no financial support except for my daughter who works in a hairdressing salon, but she cannot cover these needs,” added Buthaina.

Buthaina, like many Palestine refugees in Lebanon, is facing tough economic conditions and does not benefit from the full enjoyment of her basic human rights, including the right to work. These challenges have been exacerbated by the multiple crises that Lebanon is currently facing on economic, political and health levels. Overcrowded living conditions in camps, physical and mental stress and years of protracted conflict in neighboring Syria, make this vulnerable population particularly susceptible to the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

The majority of Palestine refugees live below the poverty line and do not have any health insurance. “Any illness or accident, especially now, can be devastating to a family, and would overwhelmingly deplete or exceed their financial resources” explains Buthaina. Chronic diseases often require costly medical treatment throughout the lifetime of the patient. However, in facing economic and financial troubles, chronic disease medication is often one of the first expenses that vulnerable households forgo in preference for purchasing basic items such as food.

For the majority of Palestine refugees, UNRWA health services are the only source of  medical care for everything ranging from comprehensive preventive and curative primary health care services, to hospitalization and life-saving treatment, and the provision of medication for specific chronic diseases. However, financial challenges and the lack of resources make it difficult for the Agency to fully cover the health needs of Palestine refugees in Lebanon like Buthaina. 

To meet this challenge, UNRWA established the Medical Hardship Fund (MHF) in 2016 to improve access to health care for Palestine refugees and alleviate their financial burden. The fund provides complementary support to UNRWA’s regular programme, by supporting patients suffering from catastrophic diseases and those in need of life-saving hospitalization or costly treatment related to diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and thalassemia. The cost of hospitalization or treatment for such diseases in Lebanon can be extremely high.

“The medicine I need is very expensive. I was relieved when I was told by my UNRWA doctor that 80 per cent of this treatment is covered by the Medical Hardship Fund.  I was afraid that UNRWA would not cover it and I, myself, cannot secure it. I am doing my best to pay the remaining 20 per cent which is already a fortune. I am so afraid because of the news that the Central Bank might end State subsidies on basic goods and medicine. This would be catastrophic.”

The Medical Hardship Fund is dependent upon the generous support and funding from donors such as the King Salman's Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid (KSC) which in 2020, has been the largest donor to this fund. Without this generous and ongoing support, thousands of Palestine refugees in Lebanon would be denied their basic right to medical treatment in a sustainable and dignified manner.