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Archive for March 25th, 2012

Officials suspended

Posted by African Press International on March 25, 2012

UGANDA: Senior health officials suspended amid TB drug shortage

A TB patient at Gulu Hospital

KAMPALA/GULU,  – Uganda’s Minister of Health, Christine Ondoa, has suspended several senior health officials, including the managers of the national HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis programmes, for poor performance and drug shortages.

Health centres across the country have been facing critical shortages of TB drugs in recent weeks and officials say the lives of an estimated 50,000 people have been put at risk as a result.

Dr Francis Adatu, the national manager of the TB and Leprosy Control Programme, was suspended over a critical shortage of TB drugs, and Dr Zainab Akol, programme manager for HIV/AIDS, over the unstable supply of antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs. Her suspension comes one week after a national AIDS Indicator report revealed an increase in the HIV prevalence rate from 6.4 percent to 6.7 percent. 

Three other senior managers – Dr James Sekajugo, the programme manager for non-communicable diseases, Sarafin Adibaku, in charge of the Malaria Control Programme, and Rachael Senyange, from the UN Expanded Programme on Immunization, were also asked to leave office immediately. Dr Robert Basaza, a senior planner arrested on 20 March to assist the police with their financial investigations, was also suspended.

“I have withdrawn her [Akol] and four others from their assignments. I have adopted the changes to overhaul the departments in order to improve on service delivery, supervision, monitoring and financial management,” Ondoa told IRIN/PlusNews. “I have left it to the technical persons [permanent secretary and director general of health services] to get people to take over the management of the programmes.”

At Gulu Hospital in northern Uganda, 37 newly diagnosed patients and more than 50 continuing patients are without TB medicines. “The TB clinic has been running without drugs for the past three months,” said Rebecca Akuu, the senior nursing officer at the TB clinic. “We are telling patients to keep checking.” IRIN/PlusNews found frustrated and frightened patients at the clinic. “I don’t know what to do, my life is in danger,” said Otto Ayella. “My cough is getting worse… making it hard for me to breathe.”

Blame game

Shortages of ARVs and drugs to treat TB and malaria occur frequently in Uganda.

Dr Asuman Lukwago, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health, told IRIN/PlusNews that most public health facilities had run out of drugs due to changes in the procurement and supply responsibilities introduced by the new Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) international guidelines.

Drugs were previously procured by the National Tuberculosis and Leprosy Centre, but since late 2011 the procurement and distribution of drugs and pharmaceutical products has been handled by the National Media Stores (NMS), an autonomous government corporation. The new procurement policies are aimed at improving the management of the supply chain.

“It’s true we have some problems… The transition will be managed. We are doing everything possible to have drugs distributed to the affected hospitals,” Lukwago said.

Moses Kamabare, the NMS general Manager, blamed the current drug shortage on a shortfall in foreign funding. “The government has just now started funding the drugs,” he said. “The country had some problems with the Global Fund [to fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis]. This brought some shortages. However, we now have… drugs… for three months.”

Kamabare said part of the blame also lay with local health authorities who did not put in requests for drugs on time. “If they don’t requisition, we can’t know whether they have the drugs or not. We can’t keep following up on them.”

Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
Supply chain problems have led to regular drug shortages

Rectifying the situation

Health Minister Christine Ondoa said the government has procured enough TB drugs to cater for 50,000 patients for the next three months. “We want to assure the public that there is no cause for alarm as there are now sufficient drugs. All patients are therefore advised to report to health facilities for treatment,” she told a recent media briefing.

The procurement of medicines for the next six months with funding from the Ugandan government was ongoing she said, and the government had also, for the first time, procured second-line TB drugs for 250 patients diagnosed with multidrug-resistant TB. “The first consignment of TB drugs under the Global Fund arrangement will arrive in the country in September,” she added.

Dr Nathan Nyachi the director of Gulu Hospital, confirmed that medicines were now available. “We have the drugs. I have just been collecting the hospital’s consignment, and for several other health units in the district,” he told IRIN/PlusNews.

An estimated 102,000 Ugandans become infected with TB annually, and about 50,000 cases have been diagnosed and are on treatment. The country ranks 16th on the UN World Health Organization’s list of 22 high-burden countries that make up 80 percent of global TB cases.


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Syrian refugee crisis

Posted by African Press International on March 25, 2012

SYRIA: UN asks for help in responding to Syrian refugee crisis

Better than nothing, but refugee Um Mohamed has water only once a week

REMTHA,  – At the edge of this busy border town, a set of old, overcrowded buildings has become a transit house for Syrians fleeing to Jordan illegally.

Designed for 500, the compound now houses up to 800 at times. Those who do not find space inside sleep in the open under trees. The compound has no gate – external traffic passes through it as children run around without supervision. The toilets are strewn with days-old faeces, with women’s sanitary napkins piled up in the corners.

No one is fond of the place – not the UN, not the NGOs which provide services, not the Jordanian police officer who runs it – but there are few alternatives.

Apartments in northern Jordanian border towns are filling up and some landlords have doubled the rent.

Refugee camps are already under construction along the border. But opening them entails a political decision Amman is not yet willing to take, as Jordan tries to play a delicate balancing act between providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians without calling them refugees and taking strong action that would offend the Syrian regime.

Nor are camps an ideal solution for aid workers, who much prefer refugees to live a normal life in apartments.

But as Andrew Harper, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan, put it: “If there is a lack of international support, there may be no option.”

Until now, the UN has played a limited role in the response to the Syrian refugee crisis. But as a year-long anti-government uprising in Syria becomes increasingly violent and refugees keep streaming out, the scale of the problem is becoming too big for host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to handle alone. And with the situation expected to get worse, the UN is now trying to prepare for a future influx.

“On a daily basis, there are hundreds of people who continue crossing the border,” said Panos Moumtiz, newly-appointed regional refugee coordinator for UNHCR. Given there is yet “no light at the end of the tunnel” with regards to a political solution, he told IRIN, “we know that on a pragmatic level, we need to be ready.”

UNHCR today appealed for US$84 million to cover immediate humanitarian needs for Syrian refugees in the next six months and to ensure systems are in place to be prepared for more arrivals. That price tag is likely to rise as needs are re-assessed in the coming weeks and months.

There are currently more than 30,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR across the region, but around 96,500 in need of humanitarian assistance, the agency says. That number is expected to double, according to the UN’s contingency plans.

“The burden”

Jordan is fast becoming the most desirable option for Syrian refugees. Some come here after fleeing first to Lebanon or Turkey, or from as far as northern Syrian cities Aleppo and Idlib. Syrians say they feel safer here than in Lebanon, where some elements of its government support the Syrian regime; and more comfortable than in Turkey, where they may encounter linguistic problems.

So far, Jordan has done a reasonable job of responding to the crisis. But the refugees are increasingly testing the small, resource-poor country’s weak infrastructure, already stretched to the limit by the presence of nearly half a million Iraqi refugees.

Jordan’s economy is based mainly on remittances and foreign aid. The national debt is $20 million and unemployment stands at 13 percent. The government subsidizes bread, water and fuel; and is also shouldering the cost of Syrians going to school and accessing medical care for free.

It is a country accustomed to hosting refugees – they have flowed here during several crises over the decades – and people do not question their presence.

“Of course they are welcome here. Where else would they go?” one taxi driver said.

But from the taxi drivers to the highest levels of government, there is a level of resentment at having to carry the “burden”, as government spokesman Rakan al-Majali put it, alone.

“We did not want to demand international help before responding to this crisis,” he told IRIN. “But we are confident that our Arab brothers and the international community will not let Jordan down.”

Needs beginning to increase

Many Jordanian families – economically vulnerable to begin with – have been hosting Syrian refugees in their homes.

“They’re basically sharing their shirts, their gas bottles, their bedrooms – anything they can share,” Harper told IRIN. “There’s an incredible demonstration of good will at the moment, but there’s only so much resources people can share before it becomes exhausted.”

According to community-based organizations, that has already begun happening. Jordanians who had rented out apartments to Syrians for free can no longer afford to do so and have, in some cases, had to kick their guests out.

Up six flights of dark, dusty stairs, Um Maher and eight other members of her family live in a soulless apartment with mouldy, damp walls, donated beds, no toilets, and running water only once as week. They fled from the Syrian flashpoint city of Homs. Her husband now works for 250 Jordanian dinars a month, all but 40 of which goes towards medicine and rent.

It is people like these UNHCR wishes to support financially, but has so far been unable to do so on a wide scale. While the family is registered with UNHCR, the only help it has received is from the Syrian Woman Association, a community group formed by an older wave of Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in the 1980s.

Short of cash

The more protracted their stay in Jordan, the more vulnerable these new refugees are becoming. Some were able to support themselves when they first arrived, but have since exhausted their savings. The Islamic Charity Center Society, for one, is registering people who have been in Jordan for months but only now are starting to need assistance.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says refugee children as young as eight or nine are working in coffee shops and garages because their families are so desperate for cash inflow. The agency is also concerned about families marrying off their daughters young as a way of coping.

New arrivals from Syria are arriving with less means.

Nithal Hassan spent four months hiding in a cave outside the southern Syrian town of Dera’a after security services came looking for him. By the time he arrived in the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, he had the equivalent of $15 in his pocket.

''There’s an incredible demonstration of good will at the moment, but there’s only so much resources people can share before it becomes exhausted''

As the crisis in Syria continues, many have gone extended periods without work and have had to spend their savings to survive. They cannot sell their homes or cars because the market has stopped. Those who do come with the hugely de-valued Syrian pound cannot exchange it for much on the market.

“So even the rich are needy when they arrive,” said Masara Srass, who leads the Syrian refugee response for the Syrian Woman Association.

The long-standing Syrian community in Jordan absorbed many of the new arrivals into their homes and helped them with cash, food, blankets and furniture. But as the number grows, this, too, has become unsustainable. And the organizations themselves need support.

“We want international organizations to help us build our capacity, give us money. They need to help. Otherwise, how can we keep working?” said Eqbal Ebrahim of the association.

One of the weaknesses of these local groups has been coordination. There is an excess of food and a lack of cash to support families who are renting. Various different organizations have been registering families, and according to aid workers, many of the latter have received aid many times over.

Local aid agencies are already trying to amalgamate all their lists, but UNHCR hopes its new response plan will contribute to improved coordination and a clearer strategy for the government’s response – which has come under some criticism for lacking direction and having no clear lead ministry.

“If the government had a plan, would the situation here have gotten so bad?” asked one aid worker at the Remtha guesthouse.

International burden-sharing

The government spokesperson, al-Majali, said the number of Syrians in the country has so far been manageable.

“The movement between the two countries has always existed in the thousands,” he said. “Now they’re staying longer – these are just details.”

The government is ready to open the camps as soon as the numbers necessitate it, he added. “We are prepared to help our brothers no matter what the size of the problem.”

But Harper insists the international community needs to be part of the solution.

“If [we] are serious about international burden-sharing and trying to help those in need, then Jordan is doing the first step, the second, third and fourth steps, but at some point, it can’t do it alone.”

The UNHCR response plan includes cash assistance for vulnerable Syrian families and support for host communities, including the refurbishing of schools and health facilities.

As part of the plan, UNICEF hopes to repay the Jordanian government for the tuition and textbooks costs of Syrian children going to school, who number at least 10,000 according to al-Majali.

Through its partners, it is also hoping to provide psycho-social support for traumatized children who wet their beds, jump at every sound and whose vocabulary has come to include blood-covered streets and rocket-propelled grenades.

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) is requesting funds to be able to monitor the border and evacuate Palestinians or Iraqis in Syria who may eventually need to flee.

The Jordanian government will also be conducting an assessment of the refugee population in the coming weeks, to better define the needs.

Some agencies, like UNICEF, present in Jordan for decades, have been able to use some of their own funds to start projects immediately. But others, like UNHCR, have been hamstrung. “In Jordan, we’ve got basically nothing to work with at the moment,” Harper said.

As funds become available and the UN starts providing more assistance, people who have not registered with UNHCR are likely to come out of the woodwork, which will put an additional pressure on aid, he warned.

The UN is preparing a separate three-month plan for a response to humanitarian needs within Syria, where there are an estimated 200,000 displaced people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. It will be launched in a few weeks, following the results of a government-led assessment of affected areas, in which technical staff from the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are also taking part.

Other agencies, like the Jordan Red Crescent, will be launching their own appeals.

“The capitals around the world who are deploring what is going on [in Syria] should also step up [with support],” Harper said. “We will see whether the rhetoric is hollow on the humanitarian front.”


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Singer Whitney Houston died of cocain overdose

Posted by African Press International on March 25, 2012

by api

Sad affair. Now it has been confirmed that singer Houston died of cocain overdose.

The coroner has said that she may have had heart attack after taking cocain, thus causing her to drown in the bath.

This mirrors bad image on popular musicians.


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Smugling help into Syria – helping the needy

Posted by African Press International on March 25, 2012

SYRIA: Khalil Al Asfar, “I felt it was my duty to do something to help my Syrian brothers”

Syrian activists load medicine and communications equipment into a car in the Jordanian border town of Remtha. From here, they will be smuggled into Syria

AMMAN,  – Khalil Al Asfar, from Dera’a in southern Syria, was barely 20 when he left the country in 1990 to try his chances in the USA, where he became the successful manager of a plumbing company in New York.

As he watched the harsh crackdown on protests by the government, Al Asfar decided to do something. He founded an association called Syria First Coalition, and began collecting donations from Syrians living in the USA. With the funds, he bought and distributed relief aid to Syrians who have sought refuge abroad or smuggled it to those still inside.

He is one of many among the Syrian diaspora who have decided to go back home and find creative ways to help. In the absence of unhindered access by humanitarian aid agencies, actions like his have become vital in supplying relief items to vulnerable civilians inside Syria. Al Asfar told IRIN his story as he brought medical supplies to a pick-up point in Jordan.

“The idea of creating Syria First Coalition came immediately after I saw how the uprising in Syria, that began in my hometown, Dera’a, was heavily and cruelly repressed by the regime. If I look at my life now, I can say I’ve been quite a lucky man. I felt it was my duty to do something to help my Syrian brothers who were still in the country and whose lives had become hell.

“We organized several charity events in the States those past months, and with the money collected, I came here in Jordan in January 2012 where I joined local activists who escaped from Syria, who I first talked to by email and through Skype calls. They put me in touch with Syrian refugees here, in Amman, but mostly in the towns of Irbid and Ramtha, a few kilometers from Dera’a, which is located just across the border.

“So far, we already distributed hundreds of food parcels and other commodities for the Syrian families living here. Sometimes, I also use our funds to finance some micro-investments, like today when I just brought a fridge and a new washing-machine to a group of 15 refugees sharing a small apartment in Irbid.

“Another part of our activities is to gather medical supplies, like basic medicines or cervical collars [neck braces], and to get them smuggled inside Syria through secure channels. Some doctors in Syria tell us what is needed, and we make it pass to Dera’a across the border. Then, it is redistributed along other channels all over the country.

“But my best memory remains probably the event we organized in January for 100 children from Syria, here in Amman. During one afternoon, we brought them to a playground where we organized games and other activities with them, and we offered each one a small gift. It was fantastic to see those kids – a lot of whom have been traumatized by what they saw and what they experienced – to laugh and smile again, even if it was only for a brief moment.”


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inequalities facing Arabs

Posted by African Press International on March 25, 2012

ISRAEL: Address inequalities facing Arabs, says ICG

Graffiti in the Ajame neighbourhood of Jaffa, Israel, where currently about 500 Palestinian families face eviction orders

TEL AVIV,  – Urgent steps should be taken to address the widespread marginalization of Arab minorities in Israel, including Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem, to improve their livelihoods and encourage sustainable peace in the Middle East, says the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“Palestinian citizens [of Israel] are politically marginalized, economically underprivileged, ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality and ever more willing to confront the status quo”, the think-tank said in a new report, entitled Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab Minority and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

As of 2011, there were about 1.5 million Arabs in Israel, comprising about 20 percent of the population of around 7.7 million. These figures include the 285,000 Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, most of whom do not hold Israeli citizenship but have permanent residency.

But inequalities between Arabs and Jews in Israel span many fields of public life, and are enshrined in parts of the legal system and government practices.

According to the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), about 30 Israeli laws discriminate directly against Arab citizens. One of them, for instance, is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prohibits Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who are married to Israeli citizens from acquiring Israeli residency.

In other areas of governance and government practices, discrimination happens less overtly, but nevertheless affects people severely.

“I am not a squatter”

One of the places where Arabs feel marginalized as a result of official housing policies is Jaffa, Tel Aviv. Here, about 40 percent of the Palestinian population live in so called “absentee ownership” properties, designating formerly Palestinian properties taken over by the Israeli state after the 1948 war, after its Palestinian residents had fled, or were expelled.

Currently about 500 of the 2,000 “absentee-property” homes inhabited by Palestinians in Jaffa face eviction orders, because they are considered “squatters” by the Israel Land Administration, the government body in charge of administering national land, which also oversees “absentee property”.

“If the government destroys my house in April as scheduled, I will build it up again, and even build another one beside,” Esther Saba, who lives on social welfare with her husband and three children in a small house in Jaffa, told IRIN.

''In Palestinian Jaffa, the poorest people live on the most expensive piece of soil in the country. Even if I have a doghouse close to the sea, the value of it comes from what you can build once you demolish the doghouse.''

“In Palestinian Jaffa, the poorest people live on the most expensive piece of soil in the country,” Judith Ilani from Jaffa’s Popular Housing Committee, told IRIN, adding: “Even if I have a doghouse close to the sea, the value of it comes from what you can build once you demolish the doghouse.”

Many among Jaffa’s Palestinian community expressed certainty that they would never be evicted from their homes if they were Jewish. “If I was Jewish, no one would have let me live without electricity in this shack for five years. I am not a squatter,” Esther Saba said.

Indeed, many observers of the situation in Jaffa have pointed out that as part of a wider gentrification process, poor Palestinian residents are being pushed out in order to make space for wealthier newcomers.

Restricted access to land

For most Arabs in Israel, access to land and the continuing Israeli measures to expel them from their homes are highly emotional topics. In this regard, ICG cautiously warns about the potential for escalation.

“In addition to restrictions on Muslim access to holy sites, especially in Jerusalem, discriminatory policies regarding land and housing have potential of sparking localized violence in the future, if the grievances are not addressed,” Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with ICG in Jerusalem, told IRIN.

About 93 percent of Israel’s land is nationalized, and much of it is allocated explicitly for Jewish communities. And while Arab citizens constitute 20 percent of the population, only about 3.5 percent of Israel’s land is owned by them.

The potential for conflict over land issues is particularly high in the Israeli Negev desert, where Bedouin communities have been struggling over land rights for years now, Zalzberg said, adding: “Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel are growing and may dangerously flare up.”

To many Arab citizens of Israel, questions of identity, self-definition and education lie at the heart of their perceived marginalization within a Jewish-dominated, Israeli state.

Teaching one’s own history

“Discrimination against Arab schools happens on three levels,” Yousef Jabareen, head of Dirasat, a policy think-tank for the Palestinian minority, told IRIN. “The first one is allocation of resources. Secondly, Palestinian-Arab identity is not recognized by the education system. And thirdly, there are simply no Arab educators inside the decision-making processes.”

Palestinian Arab schoolchildren make up about 25 percent of the country’s school students, or around 480,000 pupils. “We expect the Ministry of Education to allocate the same share of 25 percent to Arab education. Not three times less,” Jabareen said, adding: “We are currently facing a lack of about 6,000 classrooms in the Arab sector.”

In addition to a lack of classrooms, the drop-out rate among Arab pupils is two times higher than among Jewish students. Only 30 percent of Arabs who take the national matriculation exam needed to enter university also qualify, as compared to 75 percent of Jewish youths.

To Arab educators in Israel, an end to marginalization essentially means the permission to teach one’s history.

“One of the most important demands is that the [Israeli] Education Ministry allow Arab students to study their own history – to learn about the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, about Palestinian protests, and about their own poetry and literature,” Jabareen said.

“Finding solutions to national identity issues will be necessary for reaching full reconciliation. Otherwise Palestinian Arabs will continue to feel marginalized, unable to feel that they belong, even if socio-economic equality is addressed,” Zalzberg said.

The ICG suggests changes in three stages. First, the Israeli state and its Arab citizens should try to lower tensions, while socio-economic inequalities should be reduced. In a second step, essential questions over the nature of the Arab minority and its status in Israel should be addressed through inter-communal dialogue.

But a grand bargain over rights between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities is unlikely to happen, unless it is integrated into a wider Israeli-Palestinian peace process towards a two-state solution, the ICG report suggests: “Under one possible option, Palestinians would recognise Jews as Israel’s national majority with a right to self-determination, while the state would officially recognise Palestinian citizens as a national minority with equal individual as well as specific collective rights.”


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