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Wed 16 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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Lebanese doctors fighting to keep health service afloat

Doctors and healthcare workers in war-torn Lebanon are battling against severe medical shortages, as the health system nears collapse.

Doctors and healthcare workers in war-torn Lebanon are battling against severe medical shortages, as the health system nears collapse.

Israeli air strikes that began in Beirut on July 12 have crippled infrastructure, forced thousands of emergency evacuations and left up to 800,000 Lebanese in urgent need of medical facilities. Overrun doctors have resorted to using schools as makeshift clinics, while administering limited supplies from the few hospitals that have remained operational through the crisis.

Schools have become a focal point after approximately one million fled Beirut’s southern suburbs seeking refuge from the growing number of missile attacks. Operating from improvised surgeries, Lebanon’s healthcare professionals are treating everything from chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, to stress-related problems including ulcers, skin rashes and anxiety attacks.

Dr Faysal Kak, a gynaecologist at the American University Hospital (AUH), is coordinating one such school operation. He says many patients are suffering ailments caused by the effects of war. “Patients at the Zihaya Kudra secondary school suffering from pre-existing problems such as heart or breathing complaints have had these conditions exacerbated by their living conditions,” he said.

Dr Kak is one of around 50 doctors, nurses, pharmacists and trainees from the AUH currently volunteering across 12 schools. “The [Lebanese] civil war has taught us many things and this country has a very active society,” he said. “This is a very strong and dynamic country that is able to cope with emergencies like this.”

Local hospitals are operating in an equally extreme environment as casualties and aid seekers multiply. The Saleh Hospital in Haret Hreik, south of Beirut, has seen its staff reduced from 40 to just a handful of doctors and nurses following an Israeli missile strike on July 14th.

“I have treated 32 people in a week,” said Haitham, one of the remaining doctors. “Most had suffered shrapnel wounds from flying glass. We have enough medical supplies for a couple of weeks, but after that I don’t know what will happen.”

Dr. Nazih Gharios, head of Mount Lebanon Hospital in Beirut, expressed disbelief at the apparent deliberate targeting of hospitals and incoming aid. “Hospitals and ambulances were usually off limits,” he said. “Not this time.”

He has ordered that all patients be moved to the basements, to protect against bomb strikes. A radiology waiting room has been turned into a maternity ward, an MRI scanner space into a recovery room and a heart catheterisation laboratory into a neonatal intensive care unit. Nurses there are working furiously to keep a 600 gm. baby girl alive, along with 1.2 kg. twin boys.

“We can’t go on like this for more than a few weeks,” Dr Gharios says. “Supplies are already running short.”

The International Medical Corps (IMC) has rallied to help, providing a mobile clinic to delivers medicines from Syria to the Lebanese border.

“The humanitarian situation in Lebanon is worsening, with widespread destruction of public infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, road networks and fuel storage,” said Agron Ferati, IMC’s team leader in Beirut. The organisation is focusing on delivering medication for chronic illnesses, medicine, hygiene kits and basic emergency health kits to the 100,000 destitute who have not found adequate shelter.

Medical aid from the GCC region has also been stepped up. To date, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have donated over US $70 million to Lebanon’s relief effort, including ambulances and medical supplies.But, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it isn’t enough. The WHO is insisting that more direct medical funding is required to see out the crisis, estimating necessary donations of US $32.4 million.

“As more people are displaced and as more infrastructure is destroyed, health needs will grow,” WHO representative Dr Ala’ Din Alwan told reporters. “Funding from the international community for health will save lives and reduced suffering.”

Christopher Stokes, operations director for Doctors Without Borders, said deliveries to Beirut were failing to reach refugees outside the capital.

“It’s striking how little aid is being delivered on the ground,” he said. “If we think we’re having impact on (the rest of) the country, that’s delusional.”

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