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As Its Health Care System Collapses, Infectious Diseases Are Surging in Gaza

Experts warn that more deadly illnesses may spread due to 95 percent of residents’ forced reliance on unsanitary water.

A man holds one of the injured children of Palestinian cameraman Mohammed Alaloul following an Israeli strike on the Al Maghazi refugee camp in Deir Al Balah in the central Gaza Strip, at the Al Quds hospital on November 5, 2023.

The infectious disease outbreaks that doctors on the ground, public health officials, and humanitarian groups have been warning about for weeks in Gaza appear to be in full force, the World Health Organization said Thursday as it reiterated its call for a cease-fire to save lives.

The global public health organization said authorities have reported a surge in cases of diarrhea, with more than half of those affected children under the age of 5, as Israel’s decision to cut off fuel access in the blockaded enclave has shut down water desalination plants and disrupted waste collection. The circumstances have created “an environment conducive to the rapid and widespread proliferation of insects, rodents that can carry and transit diseases.”

By Thursday, said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, all of Gaza’s 120 municipal water wells were expected to be depleted.

Health officials in the blockaded enclave, where nearly 11,000 civilians have now been killed, are also reporting nearly 9,000 cases of scabies and lice; 12,600 cases of skin rashes; more than 1,000 reports of chickenpox; and nearly 55,000 cases of upper respiratory infections as roughly 1.5 million displaced people crowd into hospitals, churches, schools, and shelters in search of safety from Israel’s relentless bombardment.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned that those disease outbreaks could soon give way to the spread of more deadly illnesses like cholera and typhoid due to 95% of residents’ forced reliance on unsanitary water in the past month.

“The humanitarian suffering in Gaza has already reached catastrophic levels, and it’s set to get worse unless something changes immediately,” said Bob Kitchen, vice president of emergencies for IRC. “While the overwhelming driver of mortality remains the ongoing violence and destruction, a humanitarian ceasefire now would also serve to help aid agencies get ahead of a looming public health crisis within an already vast humanitarian crisis… The conditions are ripe for the spread of communicable and waterborne diseases — diseases that adversely affect children and lead to preventable deaths.”

Al Jazeera reported earlier this month that experts have surmised Israel is intentionally leaving Palestinians in Gaza with a lack of safe drinking water, using “water access as a weapon of war” and intensifying the humanitarian catastrophe.

In overcrowded shelters run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, WHO said, an average of 160 people are sharing one toilet and there is only one shower for every 700 people, compounding the unsanitary conditions and raising the risk of disease outbreaks.

With aid convoys largely blocked at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, cleaning supplies as well as medicines have no way of getting to hospitals and shelters, and water supplies that humanitarian groups have managed to get through the crossing are only 4% of what is needed.

Medical workers also don’t have sufficient personal protective equipment, making it more likely that they will acquire and transmit infections to the patients they are desperately trying to care for.

The impending colder weather is raising alarm over the potential for worsening malnutrition and food shortages, particularly for more than 50,000 pregnant people and about 337,000 children under the age of 5 in Gaza.

Kitchen said groups including the IRC are working to scale up their infection control programs as quickly as they can but warned that their efforts will remain severely obstructed as long as powerful countries including the United States refuse to support calls for a cease-fire.

“Without a meaningful humanitarian cease-fire to allow the free flow of aid, the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians will continue,” said Kitchen. “Immediate and sustained diplomatic intervention is urgently needed to enable a humanitarian cease-fire, which would pave the way for addressing these pressing humanitarian and protection needs and halt the health catastrophe that will lead to more deaths, particularly among children.”

WHO also reiterated its demand for “the unconditional release of all hostages [by Hamas] and a humanitarian cease-fire to prevent further death and suffering.”

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