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Gaza: power cuts put lives at risk

07-09-2010 Feature

A serious electricity shortage in the Gaza Strip is disrupting the lives of its people. Those hardest hit include hospital patients who depend on machines, such as the hundreds who need regular dialysis.

Khader Saqr lies on a couch, eyes half shut, thinking about the things he can no longer do because of his health. Most of all, he misses playing with his grandchildren.

Last year, kidney failure turned 63 year-old Khader's life upside-down. And daily power cuts at the haemodialysis department in Gaza's Shifa hospital are further jeopardizing his health.

“The power often goes off while we're receiving treatment, " explains Khader. " All the machines stop until the generator comes on. Without power, our blood stops circulating. So every time there's a power cut, I have a problem.”

Mohammed Shatat has headed the dialysis department for the past ten years. He says that the situation has worsened recently. “We've been living with a power crisis for the past five years, but the cuts have become more frequent in recent months. When the power goes off, the patients'blood coagulates and they can easily become anaemic. In principle, we could treat this by giving them medication to boost their haemoglobin levels, but we simply don't have the necessary drugs.”

 Power cuts affect medical equipment  

On average, the Gaza Strip is deprived of electricity for 7 hours a day. Some days, the power cuts last 12 hours. When the mains power drops out, emergency backup generators take over in the hospitals. Some cut in automatically, but others have manual switches, so it takes a few minutes before they can start supplying power. When a dialysis machine stops during treatment, a nurse has to pump the blood manually to prevent it clotting.

" Dialysis sessions should last four hours, " explains Shatat. " But because of the power cuts the length of the sessions varies, so people aren't getting treated properly. Whenever we lose power, nurses have to operate the dialysis machines manually, but of course there aren't enough nurses to do that for all the patients at the same time. "

Power fluctuations take a heavy toll on the machines themselves, which break down regularly. Finding spare parts to repair them is often a protracted process. " It's difficult to find spare parts for medical equipment in Gaza and it can be several months before we can get parts from outside the Strip, " Mr Shatat points out. " In the meantime, we have fewer machines, which means we can treat fewer patients. "

Palina Asgeirsdottir is the ICRC's health-programme manager in Gaza. " Several factors have led to this situation, " she explains. " Years of armed conflict and occupation have made it extremely difficult just to keep up with routine maintenance and repairs on the generating equipment and electricity network, let alone to increase capacity to meet the growing needs. "

The only power station in the Gaza Strip was partially destroyed by Israeli shelling in 2006. Because of the closure and the ban on bringing building materials into the Strip, it has generally been impossible to carry out repairs and maintain the electricity network. The power station requires fuel, as do the backup generators. Disagreements between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas authorities in Gaza over the payment of fuel bills only adds to the problem: when fuel deliveries are delayed, the power plant has to reduce its output or shut down altogether.

 Drug shortages hit patient health  

As if all the problems with dialysis machines were not enough, kidney patients are facing a shortage of the special drugs they need, which are not available in Gaza. And they're not the only ones, as Ms Asgeirsdottir explains: " Patients with chronic conditions need certain medication. Examples include drugs for kidney transplant patients, Factor VIII and IX for patients with haemophilia and special food for infants and children with food intolerance and digestive problems. Cancer patients have their treatment protocols interrupted. Without these drugs, patients suffer. They may even die. "

For a while, Khader Saqr watches the dialysis machine, willing it to keep on pumping and cleaning his blood. After a few minutes he closes his eyes and tries to relax. He imagines he is walking on the beach with all his grandchildren running and laughing with him, back in the good old days, when he had two working kidneys.
 

    
Gaza power cuts – the background

  Power cuts are having a devastating impact on the whole health-care system in Gaza, often directly endangering the lives of patients who depend on hospital equipment for their treatment. Those paying the price are ordinary Palestinians, including children, elderly people and those with severe illnesses. They have no choice but to rely on a rapidly unravelling system.

  When the electricity goes off, electronic devices used in surgery suddenly stop working and the lights go out in operating theatres. Other devices can suffer permanent damage due to the power cuts, such as dialysis machines, heart monitors, computer tomography scanners, lab analysers and magnetic resonance imaging equipment. Washing machines and the autoclaves used to sterilize equipment cannot function without electricity.

  In 2010, the ICRC imported the spare parts needed to repair 20 dialysis machines.

  The ICRC also provided automatic transfer switches to hospitals, enabling them to switch over to their backup generators instantaneously.
   
     
 
 


Photos

Khader Saqr (63) on a dialysis machine. 

Khader Saqr (63) on a dialysis machine. He goes to the hospital three times a week for three-hour dialysis sessions.
© ICRC / C. Goin

 

Shifa Hospital dialysis department, Gaza. Mohammed Shatat, head of the dialysis department.
© ICRC / C. Goin

 

Shifa Hospital, Gaza. One of Shifa's standby generators. Every day, mains power goes off for an average of seven hours. And fuel reserves for Gaza's hospital generators keep drying up.
© ICRC / C. Goin

 

Shifa Hospital, Gaza. Main building.
© ICRC / C. Goin