21 May 2013 – Health programmes carried out by the United Nations agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees has helped to improve their lives, but greater efforts and more resources are needed to effectively tackle health challenges, particularly during times of conflict, says a new report.

“There is no doubt we still have considerable ways to go to realize our ultimate Human Development Goal, ‘A Long and Healthy Life,’” stated Filippo Grandi, Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

“Nonetheless, we are moving in the right direction and incremental gains are accruing despite the difficult environments UNRWA operates in,” he added in a news release on the Health Department 2012 Annual Report.

Launched today in Geneva during the 66th World Health Assembly – the policy-making body of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) – the report reflects on the operational challenges UNRWA has faced with rolling out ongoing health reforms and managing regular services during times of conflict.

“When reading the Health Department’s 2012 annual report, it will become apparent that managing the 21st century disease burden is challenging, to say the least, especially in a region su?ering from protracted con?icts, including the long unresolved Palestinian-Israeli con?ict, as well as severe economic di?culties, and high rates of poverty and unemployment,” Mr. Grandi writes in the report, along with Dr. Ala Alwan, the Regional Director for WHO.

They add that, in a pattern evident throughout the developing world, the Middle East is also undergoing demographic and epidemiological transitions, whereby the burden of disease is changing from communicable to life-style related non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

“The change is attributed to a range of factors such as rapid urbanization, reduced physical activity, change in diet, and increased life expectancy,” they note. “Compounding these is the increase in key lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and obesity. UNRWA estimates that 70 per cent of Palestine refugee deaths are caused by NCDs, particularly diabetes and hypertension.”

The report also documents the results of the hard work of UNRWA health staff, including in conflict-affected Syria, where the violence has forced the Agency to halt its efforts to roll out its health reforms.

UNRWA has 23 health centres in Syria, providing care for 525,000 Palestine refugees. Almost half of the health centres are closed, and access to life-saving medicines, particularly for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), is not fully secured.

“It is a very difficult time for us, yet we are committed to deliver health services to Palestine refugees,” said Akihiro Seita, the director of UNRWA’s Health Programme. “While we have some clinic closures, we have responded to changing needs by setting up six extra health posts where there are the greatest numbers of internally displaced Palestine refugees. We have been sending medicines via Lebanon.

“The efforts and dedication of UNRWA staff in Syria are truly commendable. We need continued international support to provide health care for Palestine refugees in Syria,” Dr. Seita added.

In late 2011, UNRWA introduced reforms, including the Family Health Team (FHT) model, to address the growing disease burden, and provide patients with optimal care essential to treating NCDs.

The FHT approach aims to improve the quality and efficiency of health service delivery by providing comprehensive and holistic primary health care for the entire family, and by emphasizing long-term provider-patient and family relationships. Data in the report shows that continuity of care, patients’ compliance, and health outputs have already improved.

Through the Agency’s network of 139 primary health centres and mobile clinics, refugees can access free services ranging from preventive care to general medicine, specialist care, and referrals to other medical services.

UNRWA has been the main provider of primary health care for up to five million Palestinian refugees in the region for over 60 years. Over the past decades, in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, UNRWA has succeeded in reducing infant and maternal mortality and the spread of communicable diseases through its different health programmes.

In addition to health care, the Agency’s services encompass education, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.