Ethiopian infiltrators- David Bachar- Sep. 12, 2005
Illegal immigrants from Ethiopia in Israel Sep. 12, 2005 Photo by David Bacher
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The Health Ministry is planning treatment programs for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS patients tailored to labor migrants and asylum seekers, amid a gradual rise in patient numbers in these communities.

Physicians for Human Rights, however, questions the Health Ministry's figures, saying "the use of diseases to label populations is counterproductive."

According to the Health Ministry, over the last decade, 586 labor migrants and asylum seekers have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, making up 13 percent of all TB sufferers. Meanwhile, 584 labor migrants and asylum seekers have been diagnosed with HIV, 17 percent of all new HIV carriers identified.

The numbers indicate an annual rise of between 2 percent and 3 percent in rates of the two diseases in this population group over the past five years.

According to Dr. Zohar Mor, adviser to the Health Ministry's chief of public health services for TB and HIV/AIDS, "the rise in morbidity is explained among other things by identification of TB through X-rays and medical tests among refugees incarcerated at Saharonim Prison, while such identification has not been initiated in other sectors of the population."

Mor discussed the issue earlier this month at a conference of the Israeli Society for Parasitology, Protozoology and Tropical Diseases.

The Health Ministry currently funds treatment for TB and HIV/AIDS only when the carriers are pregnant and for six months after they give birth. Children are also eligible if they have an insurance policy through the Meuhedet HMO.

This week, in a prelude to the new treatment program, the Health Ministry approved the first study of its kind on the files of asylum seekers and labor migrants treated in clinics in south Tel Aviv and Ichilov Hospital.

Mor said there was no intention to deduce that these groups are spreading the diseases in Israel, and that research from other countries "does not indicate a danger of infection of the local population by infectious diseases more common among refugees." Rather, the diseases spread mainly within the community of migrants, he said.

In June 2009, an interministerial committee was set up to consider granting rights to medical treatment to all non-citizens in Israel. The committee is reportedly likely to recommend such treatment for a limited period.

Physicians for Human Rights says morbidity from the diseases in question is far lower than the Health Ministry's numbers indicate. According to figures from the clinic the group runs for refugees in cooperation with the Israel Medical Association, over the past two years, 122 people have been documented as HIV carriers, only 1.19 percent of all refugees treated at the clinic. Since the clinic was established in 1998, it has reported a total of 215 AIDS cases, out of 25,500 patients.

Ran Cohen, director general of Physicians for Human Rights, said "the use of diseases to label populations is counterproductive, especially in light of the racism prominent in the streets." He said the Health Ministry has taken no significant action to treat refugees and HIV carriers. Hundreds of thousands of shekels spent when untreated patients have to be hospitalized could be saved if they had been treated in time, he said.