Gaza halts treatment for cancer patients as siege worsens

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Asmaa al-Bahnasawi is a 45-year-old cancer patient who has been unable to receive chemotherapy sessions in the besieged Gaza Strip.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer months ago, and like more than 8,200 cancer patients, has been denied treatment until further notice because of a scarcity of chemotherapy drugs.

“How could this happen?” Bahnasawi told Al Jazeera from the Gaza Strip’s sole hospital that treats cancer patients.

“We are not patients who suffer from ‘normal diseases’,” she said. “It’s not like I can just walk into a pharmacy and purchase the medication I need.”

Gaza’s cancer patients between siege, political failure

Earlier this week, health officials in Gaza announced the al-Rantisi hospital was no longer able to provide patients with chemotherapy sessions, citing medication shortages.

The 80 percent deficit places thousands of patients at risk of deteriorating conditions, the health ministry warned on Monday.

According to its spokesperson, Ashraf al-Qudra, there are about 6,100 elderly tumor patients, and 460 children who receive medical care at the al-Rantisi hospital in Gaza.

Another 1,700 patients with “advanced tumors” are being treated at the European Gaza Hospital in the southern district of Khan Younis.

Doctors say the situation has been exacerbated since Israel cut off the supply of essential commodities last month by partially sealing off the Karem Abu Salem commercial border crossing with the Gaza Strip.

Chemotherapy drugs have been prohibited from entering Gaza, along with other medical equipment needed to perform radiotherapy, molecular therapy, PET scans and isotope scans.

“I only have two chemotherapy sessions left. With the new situation, my condition may deteriorate again,” Bahnasawi said.

Asmaa al-Bahnasawi: ‘My kids and my family need me’ [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera] 

“I can’t even leave to get treatment abroad… It is very unfair what Palestinians in Gaza endure,” she said with a broken voice.

“My kids and my family need me.”

‘Nightmare’

Many who attempt to leave the Strip in search of treatment are often denied medical permits by Israel and neighbouring Egypt.

Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007. The Erez checkpoint is the main exit for two million residents of Gaza, connecting them to medical care in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Over the years, Israel has placed obstacles in the way of those seeking medical permits, which facilitate the movement of the ill.

For instance, child patients must have a guardian who is over 50 years old in order to travel.
This has been the “hardest part” of four-year-old Aseel Mousa’s journey.

“When your child is diagnosed with cancer, it’s a painful psychological and physical battle for the entire family,” Aseel’s mother, 26-year-old Sajida, told Al Jazeera.

The two rushed to the hospital on Monday morning hoping to be among those to benefit from the last of the available medication,

“No words can describe my feelings at the moment,” Sajida said from the al-Rantisi hospital.

“How am I supposed to feel when I struggle to provide my child with medication … when I fail to get her medical referrals? It is a nightmare,” she said.

Aseel was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2016, and underwent surgery but is required to continue treatment. Because of the shortages, Aseel has to go to the West Bank city of Nablus to receive chemotherapy and to Jerusalem for radiotherapy sessions.

Four-year-old Aseel was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2016 [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera] 

“This is the hardest part of the story,” Sajida said. “With great difficulty, we get the necessary permits from the Israelis to pass through the Erez crossing.”

Aseel has to be accompanied by her grandmother, who is over 50 years old, since Sajida’s application is still being processed.

“My name is still under the ‘security check’ category… It’s been two years,” Sajida said.

Although Israel approves between 10-15 percent of permit requests, the bulk of the applications remain “under review” for months, forcing many to reschedule appointments several times.

8,000 lives ‘under threat’

According to Palestinian news agency WAFA, health officials in the Palestinian Authority-run West Bank city of Ramallah rushed to provide the Strip with three-months worth of medical supplies.

But doctors in Gaza insist this was not enough.

Khaled Thabet, head of the oncology department in al-Rantisi hospital, said the lack of Neubogen in particular, a drug used to raise immunity in cancer patients, has “highly threatened” the lives of more than 8,000 people.

“Forty-five out of 60 chemotherapy drugs were out of stock as of Monday morning,” Thabet said.

Maisoon al-Musader, an UNRWA teacher in Gaza, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. The 47-year-old has been unable to walk as the cancer spread to her bones.

Surrounded by her husband and daughter, Musader waited to be transferred back home. “We in Gaza are fed up of hearing such news,” she said.

Musader has to travel to Jerusalem every four months to receive an injection that is not available in Gaza, but she’s not always granted a permit.

“It is like we were living in heaven and now it turned into hell,” Maison’s husband, Suliman, told Al Jazeera of the latest development.

“She is our family’s backbone,” the 50-year-old said. “All I want for her is to receive proper treatment without the usual delays and cancelations.”

Since 2008, Gaza’s population has doubled while medical facilities remain poorly equipped and understaffed.

With severe restrictions on access to basic services, Gaza has been dubbed the world’s largest open-air prison.

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