From Tzfat to Brussels, and back again

Last week I had the honour of representing Israel at the European Treatment Action Group meeting in Brussels, a forum of activists from across Europe, Russia and Central Asia who focus on improving access to drug treatments for some of the world’s most prevalent, but treatable, diseases. FullSizeRender

Israel is a world leader when it comes to tackling Tuberculosis infections. We managed to cut our TB rate in half over ten years (10.8 per 100,000 in 1997 to 5.5 in 2007), through systematic targeting of high risk individuals, a national program of therapeutic treatment, two TB orientated hospitals, 15 district and regional health offices and a national system of monitoring and direct supervision for individuals affected.

Whilst TB is a rare occurrence in much of the West now, thanks to vaccinations and effective treatment, it is still a deadly disease for some of the most vulnerable in society, particularly those who are immuno-compromised or unable to access health services. Anyone can become infected with TB, but in a healthy person, it remains Latent (i.e. non active), causes no harm and is not infectious.

Despite effective control in Israel and Western Europe, there has been an explosion of TB in the former Soviet Union since the collapse of a once strong healthcare system, and today, among the millions of Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war. Israel has treated a number of injured and ill refugees from Syria, including right here at Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, just down the road from Livnot.

Some of these refugees will undoubtedly be affected by TB. But thanks to Israel’s robust system of monitoring and treatment, frontline healthcare workers, patients and visitors to the hospital, and the general population of Tzfat and Israel, remain safe and protected. This is far from reality in many other places. From the streets of Athens, where the financial collapse has caused huge shortages of vital drugs, and even to Brussels, where the Belgian Government’s refusal to provide lifesaving medications to refugees has left people to literally die on the street.

The European Parliament in Brussels

The European Parliament in Brussels

I have been an activist in treatment advocacy for around 7 years, and have worked with organisations and campaign groups across the UK, Europe and South Africa to try and tackle preventable and treatable conditions. But it’s only since coming to Livnot over a year ago that I connected the work I was passionate about to Judaism.

The Torah places an ultimate value on the preservation of human life, as well as placing a positive obligation on us to try and fix what we see as broken in the world. Pharmaceutical companies have not bothered to produce an effective new treatment for TB since the 1950s, because Westerners don’t get TB. Last year, Gilead, one of the world’s richest drug companies, marketed a complete cure for Hepatitis C, but it costs over $1,000 per pill, and you have to take one a day for 12 weeks (their profits tripled last year, coincidently). And if everyone in the world affected or at risk of HIV could get access to the treatment already widely available in the West, we would effectively eradicate AIDS from the face of the Earth in a few years.

I’ve learned a lot in the eight months I have worked at Livnot, but the quote I always come back to is this very familiar message from the Ethics of the Fathers:

“We are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced in global healthcare, from war to cost to access, learning about Judaism through Livnot has taught me that injustice is not something we have to sit down and accept. Judaism is about standing up for what is right; not for profit or glory, but because all lives matter, and we are all One.

Zvi (Nick) Henderson
Past Chevre and Social Media Manager at Livnot.