Doctors protest plan to demolish Mideast’s largest psychiatric hospital

A proposal to replace Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital, the largest in the Middle East, with a new exhibition and convention center has provoked widespread controversy.

It is alleged that the government plans to knock down the hospital and transfer it to Badr City, 50km away from Cairo.

The proposed design for Cairo Expo City, which would include a shopping mall, hotel and office blocks, is by Zaha Hadid architects, a London-based company run by an Iraqi architect.

Egypt has 17 public psychiatric hospitals nationwide. In the Greater Cairo area there are two, one specializing in addiction treatment only. Abbasiya is therefore considered the sole hospital for both Cairo and Giza, and it treats 80,000 patients annually.         

“Bids have already been secretly made to implement the project,” said Mona Mina, an activist from the Doctors Without Rights movement. “This obviously proves that the project is not merely an idea, but that the government has already started the first step to turn it into reality.”

However Minister of Health Hatem al-Gabaly has denied categorically, on television and in newspapers, the government’s intention to carry out the project.

According to Ahmed Hussein, a psychiatrist at Abbasiya Hospital, the government has turned a blind eye to the catastrophic consequences that would follow the hospital's demolition.

The hospital’s great historical significance began 113 years ago when it was converted from a royal palace to a hospital.

It currently plays a crucial role in psychiatric education in Egypt, as it includes nursing schools, a training center for social work and Egyptian and Arab fellowship training programs.

The most negative impact of the demolition, however, would be on the patients’ psychological states.

In the past, the dominant medical practice was to seclude psychiatric patients. However, modern psychiatric medicine proved that patients’ negative attitudes can be exacerbated by forced seclusion.

“The isolation of a patient from community hampers his recovery,” said Hussein.

He explained that family visits are an indispensable part of psychiatric patients' treatment, positively affecting their health. “The long distance will widen the gap between both sides because the number of family visits will definitely decrease.”

“The government has organized a plan for the gradual closure of the hospital by getting rid of patients,” he added.

In 2004, former Minister of Health Aly Abdel Fattah stood against an investment project proposal to replace the hospital with a Carrefour hypermarket.

In the three years since 2007, according to Hussein, the hospital’s number of beds has been halved to 2000. The administration refuses to accept new cases.   

Last year, it was reported that the hospital released a large number of patients who were not fully recovered.

Mina agreed with Hussein, citing Health Ministry spokesperson Abdel Rahman Shahin’s statement on television that right now is not the time for implementing Cairo Expo City, which contradicted al-Gabaly’s “categorical” denial. Mina points out that this ambiguous statement puts the hospital's situation in doubt.

Moustafa Fahmy, secretary general of the Egyptian Psychiatric Association treasury, whose association strongly condemned the demolition of Abbasiya Hospital, said that “bringing the hospital down would be considered a violation of the World Health Organization stipulation that psychiatric hospitals must not be situated more than 20km from the city center."

He added that Abassiya Hospital was built in 1883, and if the Minister of Health decides to put the plan into action, the Doctors Syndicate will file lawsuits against the ministry.

“In the meantime, we seek peaceful methods in an effort to persuade the government to overturn its decision,” Fahmy said.

Last week, a statement by some of the hospital’s doctors entitled “Together against the demolition of Abbasiya Hospital” condemned the government’s alleged resolution to move the hospital and demolish the building.

The statement is to be submitted to President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif soon. 

The Doctors Syndicate along with the hospital’s doctors and various medical associations will stage a protest on Sunday in front of Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital against the alleged demolition plan.   

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