Libya's health needs can't wait for unity government, minister says

GENEVA (Reuters) - Donors must help Libya rebuild its devastated health care system and fight increasing outbreaks of disease, not wait for a unity government to be formed, the health minister and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday.

Health Minister Reida El Oakley also said that Islamic State was “like a cancer” in the North African country that must be fought with support from the international community.

Libya’s internationally recognized parliament voted on Monday to reject a unity government proposed under a United Nations-backed plan to resolve the political crisis and armed conflict.

“I think the international community, including the U.N., should divorce the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people away from any political dialogue,” El Oakley told a news briefing. “Anything short of that I would consider to be a crime. It is a crime, actually.

“At least 60 to 70 percent of our hospitals are shut down or totally dysfunctional. We have more than 80 percent of our staff in highly skilled areas like intensive care and emergency rooms and operating rooms that have left,” he said, referring to the period since the 2011 revolution that topped Muammar Gaddafi.

Libya has become a regional concern since Islamic State militants gained ground there and called for foreign recruits, especially from North Africa.

“ISIS is like cancer, it is growing fast. And cancer, the earlier you treat it, the better you have a chance to control it,” said El Oakley, a heart surgeon.

“Despite that, the U.N. and international community said we will not help you fight ISIS, we will not help you to have your medicine for your poor people or have a shelter for the 3 million people who have lost their homes unless you sign a paper that you are okay between east and west you have a political agreement. This is wholly inappropriate.”

An estimated 1.9 million people in the country of 6.3 million are in need of “urgent health assistance”, said Dr. Jaffar Hussain, the WHO Representative in Libya.

“Medicines are not available, the health work force is not available, the hospital is bombed, electricity is not there, fuel for the generator is not there, or it is in a conflict area which people have fled - the doctors, nurses and paramedics,” Hussain said.Programs for tuberculosis, malaria, chronic diseases, mental health and HIV/AIDS are “increasingly becoming dysfunctional,” he said. “We have an acute shortage of life-saving medicines.”

“We will end up with massive outbreaks, we will end up with mortality and morbidity rates rising exponentially and we will end up compromising the health and the future of the people of Libya if you don’t act now.”

The WHO is seeking some $50 million for Libya this year, including vaccines for children and insulin for diabetes.

“The member states are willing to support, but they are waiting for a government of national accord to be in place,” Hussain said.

“The humanitarian response should not wait for that, it should not be linked to the political process, it may take weeks, it may take months, it may take years. We don’t know.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King