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(photo credit: David Machlis)
"Health workers can be a good starting point for the promotion of peace. Health care workers are altruistic by nature - we help people, we have experience in conflict management and we must create bridges between societies," Dr. Hani Abdeen, a former dean of Al-Quds Medical School, said yesterday in Jerusalem.
He was speaking to approximately 40 Israeli, Palestinian and international health officials at the "Diseases without Passports" roundtable forum at the capital's American Colony Hotel. The meeting, timed to coincide with the publication of the latest issue of The Bridges Report, an Israeli-Palestinian public health magazine sponsored by the World Health Organization, was called to promote cooperation in the health sector.
Dr. Daniel Chemtob, director of the department of Tuberculosis and AIDS at the Ministry of Health, asked, "How can ministries acknowledge each other and work together officially when Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel's official existence?" Chetomb's mention of the Islamist group was met with long faces and a quick rebuttal.
"I am not Hamas, but things need to be done on a national level. If you have your plan and I have my plan, we will not control any infectious diseases," said Asad Ramlawi, director-general for primary health care at the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry.
There was unanimous agreement that health officials from both sides need to communicate more often and more efficiently.
Dr. Zvi Bentwich from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba pointed to Avian flu as a threat that could be exacerbated by a lack of communication between the two medical systems. "Some experts say it will happen, others say it won't, but borders are an impediment to any steps we must take together," Bentwich said. He echoed Abdeen's sentiments and called for "functional collaboration."
His policy suggestions included the institution of a common standard for records and notifications and improving cooperation in laboratory services.
Other participants said there was a need for greater NGO participation and the creation of fellowships for students and physicians from both sides.
The start of the forum was delayed for about 30 minutes because Palestinian participants were held up at checkpoints. After the meeting, one participant said the delay was symbolic of the problems facing health care providers. "If we can't make it to Jerusalem in time for these meetings, this [cooperation] is going to be difficult."
Ambrogio Manetti, head of the WHO's office for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, promised a follow-up meeting within two months and another on regional child health issues. "The forum went very well. Given the [political] history... the two sides met and were productive," he said.