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Infant mortality rate rises in Gaza for first time.

Summary: The infant mortality rate in Gaza has risen for the first time in five decades, according to an UNRWA study, and a U.N. health expert says Israel's blockade of the strip may be contributing to the alarming figures.

BEIRUT: The infant mortality rate in Gaza has risen for the first time in five decades, according to an UNRWA study, and a U.N. health expert says Israel's blockade of the strip may be contributing to the alarming figures.

Every five years, the U.N.'s agency for Palestinian refugees conducts a survey of infant mortality across the region, and the 2013 results were released this week for the first time, which are reported here exclusively in the news media.

"Infant mortality is one of the best indicators for the health of the community," says Dr. Akihiro Seita, director of UNRWA's health program.

"It reflects on the mother and child's health and in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals it is one of the indicators."

The rate, Dr. Seita says, had "declined quite smoothly over the last decades across the region, including Gaza."

So when the 2013 results from Gaza were first studied, UNRWA was alarmed by the apparent increase.

"We were so surprised by the findings, and worried," Dr. Seita says. "When we saw the first results, we redid the entire data on Gaza."

The agency then commissioned external independent research groups to examine the data, to ensure the same increase was detected.

Having consistently gone down over the last decades in Gaza -- from 127 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 20.2 in 2008 -- at the last count, in 2013, it had risen to 22.4 per 1,000 live births.

It is the first time in Dr. Seita's experience working in the Middle East that he has witnessed an increase in infant mortality, which is measured by the number of babies who die before their first birthday.

"It doesn't usually reverse. This seems to be the first time we have seen an increase," Dr. Seita says.

Seita says the only other examples of this occurring that he can think of are in some African countries which experienced HIV epidemics.

The rate of neonatal mortality -- which is from birth to four weeks of age -- has gone up significantly in Gaza, from 12 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 20.3 in 2013.

The data has been released now, two years later, as it took so long to process, as the results were so unexpected. "We were very much concerned with the findings, and it took time to confirm," Dr. Seita says.

Another region-wide survey of Palestinian refugees -- also in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon -- is now not due until 2018, but UNRWA will conduct one this year in Gaza alone, due to concerns over what this increase potentially means for the wider health care situation in Gaza.

"It seems like it might be increasing again," Dr. Seita says. "We will do another one this year, because the findings are so alarming."

It is hard to scientifically ascertain the exact causes behind the increase in both neonatal and infant mortality rates, but Dr. Seita is concerned it is part of a larger picture.

"The infant mortality and neonatal mortality rate increased drastically and that is significant," he says.

"We are very much concerned with neonatal organization and have concerns about the quality of the hospital and neonatal care.

"What it could be implying is that the level of care is not good, also the facilities, equipment and the quality of the doctors."

Since Hamas consolidated control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on the strip, meaning it is incredibly hard to get much-needed equipment into Gaza, and equally hard to get doctors out of the strip for crucial training.

"We are very much concerned about the impact of a long-term blockade on health facilities," Dr. Seita says.

"We all know that there are problems in bringing in equipment.

"Also, doctors in Gaza also have difficulties in going out to study. You have to have continuous study," Dr. Seita says, even after graduating. "Medical science is changing every day, and you need to keep training.

"It is very difficult for the doctors in Gaza."

The UNRWA report also highlights, in its findings, that the most recent survey in 2013 was conducted before last year's Israeli war on the strip, in which over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, and which UNRWA describes as the "most severe of four armed conflicts in Gaza during the past years."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Aug 8, 2015
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