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Arab Refugees Suffer Mind Disorders

Simba Russeau

CAIRO, Apr 24 2011 (IPS) - Amidst the political upheavals across the Arab world, a new U.N. study highlights the need for neurological health services to monitor brain disorders among displaced people.

Iman was a professor of engineering at the University of Baghdad. In August 2005, she was left blind after being attacked along with her husband.

“We used to have four cars and a large house. Now we don’t earn anything and our savings have nearly run out. I am broken inside living this life of begging,” Iman said in an interview with IPS.

“I am struggling to provide healthcare for me and my diabetic daughter. We have been driven from our homes, victimised, and even outside our country we lack security. The war is on the Iraqi people.”

With an estimated 40 million displaced refugees worldwide and an expected increase in those numbers due to ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, health officials are keen on monitoring the neurological disease that affects a high proportion of refugees exposed to various levels of mental shock.

Half a million refugees are now estimated to have fled Libya.

A recent study, which is a part of a United Nations pilot project, says that refugees are in need of targeted neurological health services, health education for neurological disorders and long-term and sustainable chronic disease management.

Neurological diagnoses were reported in 1,295 refugees out of 2,539 refugee visits in Jordan in 2010. These accounted for 17 percent of all refugees who were receiving health assistance and 4 percent of the 7,642 Iraqi refugees registered.

The study found that 4.97 percent of refugees with neurological system disorders reported being victims of torture. Seventy-eight percent were diagnosed as chronic disorders, with nearly 70 percent of individuals originating from Baghdad.

“They poured gasoline on my son and set him on fire right in front of our home as a warning to the entire family,” Mustafa, a Sunni father of five from Baghdad, said to IPS. “Then they killed my nephew.”

A neurological disorder occurs when structural, biochemical or electrical abnormalities in the brain, spinal chord or in the nervous system results in common symptoms such as epilepsy, back pain, headaches, root and nerve plexus dysfunctions and strokes.

Psychological stress incurred during times of emergencies such as natural disasters, war and being uprooted from their natural environment are major triggers that can cause disruption to the normal flow of the nervous system.

“Limited data has been collected on neurological diagnosis in terms of chronic disorders and how people live day to day as refugees,” Dr. Farrah Mateen of the Department of Neurology and International Health at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, a member of the American Academy of Neurology and lead researcher for the study told IPS.

“Over time health services have been more geared towards infectious diseases and this data shows that in fact there are more chronic ailments that need to be looked at.”

Arafa Hassan is from central Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, which lies in the state of South Kordofan. As a child she dreamed of sharing her cultural heritage internationally but those aspirations vanished when she was forced to leave her homeland.

“We used to have our own language but then Arabic was forced on us. I witnessed members of my family being raped and killed,” Arafa told IPS.

“Our family was driven out after the government seized our lands. Although it’s difficult living the life of a refugee, which could mean being detained or without basic needs, we had to escape persecution.”

There are an estimated 27 million internally displaced people worldwide, with Sudan representing the largest population at five million. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than two million Iraqi refugees, making Iraq one of the leading countries of origin for refugees.

As a mobile population, concrete data on their numbers are hard to track.

However, researchers warn that as conflict continues to plague the MENA region, a global trend towards high chronic disease in displaced refugees could reach pandemic proportions in the coming years.

“Understanding the neurological disorders in vulnerable displaced persons is crucial to developing sustainable policy measures to recognise and ultimately address what may be a large and lifelong burden of neurological disorders in refugee populations,” says Dr. Mateen.

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