Alarming mortality trend among young Palestinian refugees in Gaza

“Infant mortality is a barometer of the health of an entire population”.

- Dr Akihiro Seita, Director of UNRWA’s Health Department

A new study by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has found an alarming mortality trend among young Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

The paper, entitled “Stalled decline in infant mortality among Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip since 2006”, reveals that infant mortality (the death of children under the age of one years old), which in most parts of the world is decreasing, has not declined since 2006 in Gaza.

UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for humanitarian support to Palestinian refugees, periodically estimates infant mortality rates among Palestinian refugees in Gaza. It previously found a decline in infant deaths from 127 per 1000 live births in 1960 to 20.2 in 2006.

However, recent surveys have found stagnant infant mortality in Gaza.

In 2013 the infant mortality rate among Palestinian refugees in Gaza was 22.7 per 1000 live births. This is within the same range of the reported rate of 22.4 per 1000 live births in 2011.

In comparison, infant mortality in Israel fell below 20 per 1000 live births in 1977 and most recent estimates show a rate of 3 per 1000.

These results raise serious concern, not only for the health and wellbeing of infants in Gaza but to the wider population as a whole.

The Director of UNRWA’s Health Department, Dr Akihiro Seita, who recently spoke on a panel alongside MAP at the World Health Assembly, reflects that “this is an extraordinary warning sign, an alarming trend in the overall situation not only of health for infants but also the health of entire Palestine refugee population in Gaza. Moreover, it is a warning sign on the overall social and economic situation of Gaza, as the Palestine refugees account for more than seventy per cent of the entire populations in Gaza. Infant mortality is a barometer of the health of an entire population”.

After 11 years of unlawful blockade and closure, Gaza’s health system is close to collapse. Beset by severe shortages of medicines and equipment, a chronic electricity crisis, and protracted de-development, it reflects a wider humanitarian emergency which affects every aspect of day-to-day life for the 1.9 million people who live there.

UNRWA emphasises that “it is reasonable to assume that the unstable power supply, the deteriorating functionality of medical equipment, the periodic shortages of essential drugs and medical consumables have had an impact on the quality of medical care with a consequent impact on infant mortality.

Although it is not possible with our data to attribute the stalled decline in infant mortality to the siege, it should be noted that the stalling began at the same time as the siege.”

Amid these existing challenges, there are new threats to the health of Gaza’s residents due to recently-announced US cuts to funding for UNRWA.

Dr Seita stresses that “[t]his finding needs our attention since the ultimate goal is to maintain a continuing decline of infant mortality and to stop preventable infant deaths. Gaza was not able to meet the Millennium Development Goal Four for a reduction of under-five child mortality by two thirds. Efforts should be made to achieve the new Sustainable Development Goal target of a neonatal mortality rate of below 12 per 1000 live births in 2030”.

UNRWA bleakly reflects “in the absence of a healthier political and socioeconomic situation, and with recent drop in financial funding for UNRWA, it is likely to remain challenging to reduce infant mortality in Gaza”.

To find out how MAP is helping to support the health of Gaza’s youngest residents click here.

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