Risks of infectious diseases, malnutrition soar as Israel resumes attacks on Gaza Strip

Health agencies warned against growing danger of diseases outbreak and rising malnutrition in the Gaza Strip ahead of resumed attacks on Gaza

December 02, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Photo: AWDA Health & Community Association

“Even if peace was declared, we have a massive public health challenge ahead of us,” said Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme, speaking at a press conference on November 29. His warning came shortly before a short truce ended with another series of Israel’s attacks on Friday, December 1.

Read more: Israel resumes bombing Gaza after seven days of truce, kills over 100 Palestinians

The devastation of the health system in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip, is leading to growing concerns about the spread of infectious diseases. Considering the severe overcrowding in which approximately 1.8 million displaced people in Gaza are currently living, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, warned that “the risks are increasing for epidemics of respiratory tract infections, acute watery diarrhea, hepatitis, scabies, lice, and other diseases.”

The WHO recorded 75,000 cases of diarrhea and 111,000 cases of respiratory infections that prevent normal breathing function among the population in Gaza. Despite the fact that the UN health agency delivered 121 pallets of medical supplies into the Strip in the first three days of the truce, the materials delivered are enough to care for 90,000 people. This leaves tens of thousands without adequate care.

Only 15 of the 36 hospitals in Gaza are still functioning and “overwhelmed,” warned the WHO on November 29. Looking north of Wadi Gaza towards Gaza City and Beit Hanoun, 3 of 24 hospitals are still working. Health workers who were forced to leave their workplaces at gunpoint days before the truce kicked in remain imprisoned or disappeared, signaling that attacks against healthcare in Palestine will continue as bombardments and shelling resume.

Read more: Israel extends detention of Al-Shifa hospital’s director by 45 days

According to information collected by Healthcare Workers Watch – Palestine, 254 health workers were killed by Israeli violence between October 7 and November 28. This is equal to 5 health workers killed each day of the first part of the most recent war on the Gaza Strip. While numbers reported by WHO are more conservative, they still bear testimony to the extent to which Israeli occupation forces carry out attacks on health in Palestine.

The dire situation of the healthcare system is exacerbated by the living conditions in Gaza. Not only are thousands of people sheltering in crowded spaces, opening the doors to easier spread of infectious diseases, as Director-General Tedros warned, but they are also still living on minimal supplies, including potable water, food, and sanitation services. Considering the current lack of food, Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF, said they “project that over the next few months, child wasting, the most threatening form of malnutrition in children, could increase by nearly 30% in Gaza.”

With winter approaching and millions of people living in the open, Michael Ryan warned that the WHO and others working towards reinstating health services in Gaza are in front of an “absolutely gargantuan health delivery challenge.” The nutritional, as well as the emotional and psychological status of displaced people, will make this task even more difficult to achieve.

“Quite frankly, I shudder to think what will happen. The numbers that we’ve seen up to now of deaths and casualties may be a distant memory in weeks to come. The military and security intentions right now will determine life and health in Gaza over the coming weeks,” Ryan said.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.