Epidemic exposes Lebanon’s dire health crisis — Global Issues
Dr. Abdulrahman Bizri, member of the Lebanese National Assembly and the National Assembly’s Committee on Public Health, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and chairman of the National COVID Vaccine Committee and Response;
  • Randa El Ozeir (Beirut and Toronto)
  • Inter Press Service

An increase in food- and water-borne infectious diseases, primarily viral Hepatitis A, has been reported across the country. Recent statistics released by the Lebanese Ministry of Health From figures collected by hospitals, health centers and laboratories.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Hepatitis A Virus (HAV) causes Hepatitis A, which leads to inflammation of the liver. The virus is spread primarily when uninfected (and unvaccinated) people ingest food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. The disease is closely associated with unsafe water and food, improper sanitation, poor personal hygiene and oral sex.”

A relentless and nasty economic crisis has ravaged the country for years and is believed to be the main cause of the deterioration of basic amenities, community facilities and public services.

Dr. Abdulrahman Bizri, a Lebanese member of parliament and member of the parliament’s public health committee, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and chairman of the National COVID Vaccine Committee and Response, blames the collapse of Lebanon’s currency, negligence, intractable economic, political and livelihood crises, mismanagement and widespread corruption for the difficulties in preventing and containing diseases, including communicable diseases.

“All these factors have led to failure to maintain health infrastructure such as sewage systems and to provide clean water to households for direct or indirect human use through agricultural produce and livestock, resulting in the spread of many diseases, including cholera, Hepatitis A, acute diarrhea, dysentery, Salmonella and other infectious diseases transmitted through contaminated water.”

Staffing shortages and budget cuts

Government dysfunction, lack of maintenance and investment, and corruption have slowed the development of services and response to health crises.

Dr. Hussein Hassan, professor and researcher in food safety and food production at AUB, points to two factors that are severely affecting the public health situation: funding cuts and the exodus of doctors.

“Hospitals, for example, suffer from staffing shortages due to talent exodus while also struggling with inefficiencies and ghost workers. Unfortunately, bribery and budget cuts can delay badly needed projects.”

Could the Ministry of Health (MoH), in its current form given government expenditure, be reduced in its capacity to control and prevent communicable diseases?

“The Ministry of Health faces an uphill battle as it has limited capacity and low capabilities. We are heavily dependent on support from the international community, including WHO, UNICEF and UNHCR, to control these diseases,” Bizri said.

To close this gap, the situation needs to be addressed with a comprehensive and holistic approach based on short-term and long-term measures taken at many public and official levels. Dr. Hassan believes that “we need to step up surveillance of the spread of the infection, carry out mass vaccination campaigns, provide necessary supplies to those infected, install water purification systems and even improve water and sanitation conditions in crowded areas by distributing bottled water.”

Mass outbreak of Syrian refugees

Poverty, low public awareness, inadequate education, a social environment with little knowledge, and disregard for good hygiene practices all contribute to the transmission of infectious diseases.

Bizri noted that a significant number of Syrian refugees live in difficult and poor conditions, congregated in unorganized camps that lack reliable medical facilities and safe drinking water. He praised the tripartite collaboration between the Lebanese Ministry of Health, international organizations such as the WHO and UNHCR, and Lebanon’s private medical sector to combat diseases threatening the country.

“Lebanon has managed to contain many epidemics that had the potential to spread. Lebanese medical communities, including the civil society, have undertaken a massive volunteer effort to curb the spread of these diseases. The health sector has been at the forefront of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and remains at the frontline of the fight against epidemics.”

But he said he doubts “UNHCR’s role in the fight against the many epidemics that threaten Lebanon as a result of the concentrated presence of Syrian refugees, because the organization does not deal transparently with the Lebanese government and its official institutions.”

Hassan outlined several long-term measures to be implemented to ensure the continuity of public health prevention and control programs, including “economic and political stability, strengthening health systems, investing in improving water and sanitation systems, and developing and implementing maintenance programs on water safety, especially among refugees.”

He recognises the important role played by international cooperation and financial and technical support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Distrust has led to a deterioration in the relationship between the health care system and the public.

“I think the Lebanese people lost trust in the health sector a long time ago,” Bizri said, “but they continue to rely on the sector to provide affordable health care compared to the cost of private healthcare in Lebanon. Although the country boasts advanced medical services and treatments, public health still has a large deficit.”

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