Over 30 children and teens from seven countries, the West Bank and Gaza are being treated near Tel Aviv for life-threatening heart conditions, the largest group of patients brought to Israel in over a year by a charitable medical organization that says it has saved thousands of lives over the last quarter century.
The children range in ages from 6 months to 19 years old and come from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Kosovo, Uganda and Zambia, as well as the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip, said Tamar Shapira, deputy executive director of Save a Child’s Heart.
“This is a big group of children from a big variety of countries. We haven’t had a group like this since the beginning of COVID,” she said Tuesday. “They all speak different languages, are different colors, but they are all being treated by the Save a Child’s Heart team,” she said.
The patients, accompanied by a guardian, have all been brought to Israel over the last several weeks, where they quarantined under Health Ministry guidelines before receiving treatment at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.
According to Shapira, they all require open-heart surgery or life-saving catheterization to treat a number of heart conditions. They are expected to stay in Israel for a total of two to three months before being able to return home.
“Israel wasn’t just their only hope, but their last hope,” she said.
On Monday, Wolfson head Anat Engel tweeted a picture of 27 of the patients and their guardians gathered together, many holding up national flags of where they are from.
The group has treated over 5,600 children from 62 countries since being founded in 1995, and has also screened and treated thousands more on missions abroad. In 2019, Save a Child’s Heart treated a record 383 children, mostly from Ethiopia, Tanzania & Zanzibar and the PA.
Starting in 2020, pandemic-related restrictions put clamps on international travel, and Israel put stringent limits on entry to the country. The group still managed to treat 349 children, though the vast majority were Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, with another 54 each from Ethiopia and Tanzania and 41 from Romania.
While Israel has opened up most parts of daily life, strict guidelines remain in place for those seeking to enter the country, including a requirement for those who have not been vaccinated to quarantine and a ban on visitors from certain countries deemed high risk.
On Tuesday, Israel began to inch back toward pandemic footing with a surge in cases blamed the Delta variant of the coronavirus, reintroducing a mask mandate at the airport and upping enforcement of quarantine rules, among other measures.
Shapira said that Save a Child’s Heart had always closely followed government guidelines even when the pandemic appeared to have been quashed, and would keep doing so.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to continue these activities,” she said. “We’re very very happy we are able to save these kids and then send them home.”