Tunisia: Accumulated medical waste poses serious risk amid companies’ strike and government negligence

Tunisia: Accumulated medical waste poses serious risk amid companies’ strike and government negligence
A healthcare professional working at the intensive care unit of Munci Selim Hospital, Tunisia, July 20, 2021. (Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

London - ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies criticizes the Tunisian government's failure to urgently address the crisis caused by striking companies that are in charge of collecting, transporting and processing hazardous medical waste. The authority’s inaction is even more egregious considering the fact that the material poses a serious public health risk.

The London-based think tank said in a statement that the companies collecting, transporting and processing hazardous medical waste started an open-ended strike on 15th July, more than two weeks after issuing a warning.

The aforementioned companies announced that the strike will continue until their demands are met, foremost of which is the collection of debts owed by hospitals, as well as the cancellation of the records of violations related to the medical waste collected during the Covid-19 pandemic period in March 2020.

The risk of medical waste contamination extends to croplands and groundwater, as the waste is irresponsibly stored without respect to the established legally mandated safety standards

The companies also call for the resolution of logistical issues which they face, including denying warehouse expansion to increase their recycling capacity, as it leaves thousands of tons of hazardous waste untreated; this is a serious threat to the environment.

The ongoing strike will result in the further accumulation of medical waste and undermine environmental protection, especially with the rise in temperatures and the resurgence of the Covid-19 coronavirus. This could result in an outbreak of diseases that could potentially lead to new epidemics.

Officials in the aforementioned companies told ImpACT that the government still refuses to negotiate with the owners of companies working in this field regarding debts and the improvement of working conditions.

According to the officials, nine specialized companies work daily to collect and transport hazardous medical waste, which is then carried over to controlled warehouses for treatment. Eventually, it is buried in landfill sites in a manner regulated by the Ministry of Local Affairs and the Environment.

In a statement reviewed by ImpACT, the National Chamber of Hazardous Medical Waste Collection, Transport and Processing Corporations started the strike by refraining from removing nearly 25 tons per day of government and private hospital waste when the health and environment ministries “ignored all negotiation efforts made by the workers in the sector.”

For years, public hospitals in Tunisia have been heavily indebted to waste treatment companies, which in turn are experiencing financial difficulties due to the great sums of money owed to the National Health Insurance Fund.

ImpACT warns of the dangers of accumulating tons of medical waste at Tunisia's hospitals and its numerous health centres, including Coronavirus departments, at a time when infection levels are rising again, and the country is approaching the peak of its sixth wave.

Environmental specialists said that the risk of medical waste contamination extends to croplands and groundwater, as the waste is irresponsibly stored without respect to the established legally mandated safety standards. All Tunisian governorates are at risk from harmful medical waste.

Statistics estimate that Tunisian hospitals and health centres dispose of 18,000 tons of medical waste every year, including 8,000 tons of hazardous waste that is subject to control. Moreover, Covid-19 treatment and immunization centres have increased the waste quantities by about 90%.

The companies collect the waste from 210 public health facilities, 110 private facilities, 165 blood test centres, and 500 laboratories. Official figures issued by the Ministry of Local Affairs and the Environment show that the treatment rate of this waste ranges between 85% and 94%.

Studies confirm that any failure in the treatment of hazardous medical waste may spread several dangerous diseases, including scabies, fungal infection, AIDS, and hepatitis. It can also cause psychological trauma for people who live in the vicinity of such waste.

Previously, in September 2021, the hazardous medical waste treatment companies suspended their work, but they resumed following a government pledge to respond to their demands. The government did not fulfill their commitments and honour their promises.

ImpACT International calls on the Tunisian government to find urgent and sustainable solutions to the strike of hazardous medical waste treatment companies, stop ignoring the risks of accumulating such waste, and ensure stricter control over burying waste in landfills near agricultural areas.


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