London conferences highlight physical and mental health challenges for Palestinians


[This entire article is from the Medical Aid for Palestinians website.]

Protecting healthcare


Last week, Medical Aid for Palestinians joined researchers, front-line healthcare and humanitarian workers and activists calling for an end to escalating attacks on healthcare in conflicts across the world at the annual Medact conference in London. Dr Fiona Godlee, the Editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ),opened the conference saying that there was “no greater determinant of health than war and peace”, a sentiment that we at MAP know too well to be true. 


A series of sessions on the first day looked at the health impact of conflict from public health in South Sudan to building post-conflict health systems in Uganda. A number of powerful testimonies were delivered by front-line workers including MAP’s Director of Programmes in Gaza, Fikr Shalltoot, who addressed the conference via Skype.


Fikr described the situation in Gaza, where two thirds of the population are refugees, of whom 80% are aid dependent. She also discussed the devastating impact of the 2014 conflict on healthcare personnel and infrastructure – something covered in more detail in our recent report “No More Impunity”.


In a press statement ahead of the conference, Fikr highlighted the importance of protecting healthcare to prospects for peace, saying: “As the individuals who witness suffering at its most acute, front line medical staff have a vital part to play in highlighting the devastating impact of today’s conflict on innocent civilians.”


“The deaths of 16 medical workers whilst on duty in Gaza last year, and injury to a further 83, demonstrate that medics find themselves increasingly in the line of fire. Peace will only be possible in a world where the voices of health workers are heard and their lives – and the lives of those they treat – are protected.”


Miri Weingarten, of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, spoke on the second day along a similar theme. She focused on how “the struggle for accountability has become the only hope” and bemoaned the “lack of access to Gaza for external investigative bodies” such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet journal, argued that scientists can promote accountability through their research and publications, and Dr Jose Antonio Bastos, MSF International Board, bemoaned the “lack of political will to defend humanitarian systems and access to civilians for aid”.


Rethinking trauma

MAP trustee and former UK Consul General Sir Vincent Fean opened a second conference at the weekend, titled “Rethinking Trauma and Resilience in the Context of Political Violence”. The conference, held at Kingston University, came to national attention when five Palestinian mental health experts from Gaza, due to speak at the event, were denied visas by the UK authorities.


Addressing the mental health practitioners, researchers and campaigners in attendance, Sir Vincent spoke about MAP’s work providing psycho-social support for young people in East Jerusalem and the refugee camps of Lebanon. Sir Vincent said: “Conferences like these bring hope for a better future for Palestinians and Israelis, for the time when trauma ceases.”


Speakers discussed the high prevalence of trauma – especially affecting young people – living under occupation and the challenge of providing mental health support in conflict-blighted Gaza, with one study finding rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder rates as high as 92% among children in Gaza following the 2014 attacks. Speakers also highlighted the link between mental health and access to basic human rights.


Alexandra Chen, advisor to the MAP-UNICEF psycho social support project in Lebanon, spoke of the ‘toxic stress’ affecting children living as refugees and its damaging effect on educational attainment and economic opportunities, saying that “investment in a child’s mental health an investment in their future.” 


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