Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Siege Hits Palestinians Before They Are Born

Mohammed Omer

GAZA CITY, May 14 2008 (IPS) - The Israeli siege of Gaza that has restricted access to food, water and medicine is now beginning to hit unborn children and newborn babies.

It can be a hard life for babies from day one, or even earlier. Credit: Mohammed Omer

It can be a hard life for babies from day one, or even earlier. Credit: Mohammed Omer

"Many babies are born suffering from anaemia that they have inherited from their mothers," Dr Salah al-Rantisi, head of the women's health department at the Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza told IPS. And the mothers are becoming anaemic because they do not now get enough nutrition through pregnancy.

That in turn happens because the Israeli blockade has choked the supply of food and medicines.

Dr al-Rantisi also heads the women's health unit at Nasser hospital, where about 30 to 40 children are born every day. Many suffer from anaemia, he says.

Anwaar Abu Daqqa, 30, has lost three babies prematurely. The foetuses were malformed as a result of lack of nutrition and medicine for the mother, Dr al-Rantisi said. And in the last case she reached hospital late because she could not find transport.

"Premature babies born dangerously underweight is a daily and increasing phenomenon in Gaza's hospitals," he says.

The Gaza Strip is poorer and harder hit than the West Bank, but there too there are well documented instances of women having to give birth at checkpoints because of restrictions on movement.

The ministry of health says 9,000 to 10,000 babies are born in the Gaza Strip every month. Of every 1,000 born, 28 die from malnutrition, anaemia and other poverty-related causes. The ministry has no figures for surviving babies suffering from malnutrition.

"There are many cases of pregnant women who need medicines that are not available in Gaza," al-Rantisi said. Most families could not afford them if they were available, he said.

The World Bank said last month that the poverty rate in Gaza is now close to 67 percent and that economic growth last year was zero.

One consequence of poverty is anaemia. The condition, a direct consequence of poor nutrition, is not new to Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported in 2002 that 19 percent of Gazans suffer from anaemia. That figure is estimated by UNRWA now to be 77.5 percent. Children receive on average only 61 percent of their daily need of calories from UN supplies.

Many of the newly born have been hit by the political situation before they could open their eyes to the world. Of the many deliveries that take place at al-Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza, no one can tell how many of these children could grow up to live happy and healthy lives. Through the many dangers has arisen awareness of this new one – that sanctions can hit Gazans quite literally prematurely.

The fear of bombing comes later; the first dangers are the lack of food, water and medicines.

Tahani Safi, 29, lies worrying about the caesarean section scheduled for the next day. She suffers from malnutrition, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a shortage of protective water around the child in the womb.

There are many mothers with such difficulties. Such cases can be found at any hospital, but doctors say the number of cases of conditions a result of poor food and medical care in Gaza is now rising. Health authorities have warned that the life and health of countless unborn babies is in serious danger all across Gaza.

So far 146 Gazans have died directly as a result of the Israeli siege, and the border closures and shortage of medication and health care this has brought, according to the ministry of health.

The U.S. celebrated Mothers Day Sunday May 11. No one in Gaza did.

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