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Gazans reeling from closed hospitals, malnutrition and heat risks, warns UN health agency

Forcibly displaced by Israeli relocation orders, Palestinians take as many belongings as they can, before heading in search of a new place to shelter.
Forcibly displaced by Israeli relocation orders, Palestinians take as many belongings as they can, before heading in search of a new place to shelter.

Gazans reeling from closed hospitals, malnutrition and heat risks, warns UN health agency

Peace and Security

In Gaza, overwhelmed hospitals, soaring temperatures, hunger and a lack of even basic sanitation present an ever more deadly threat to a population under constant attack, UN humanitarians warned on Tuesday.

Briefing journalists in Geneva, UN World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said that according to the enclave’s health authorities, 34 people have died of malnutrition and dehydration amid ongoing Israeli bombardment, sparked by Hamas-led terror attacks on 7 October.

“In [northern Gaza’s] Kamal Adwan hospital alone, 60 cases of severe acute malnutrition were detected last week,” the WHO spokesperson told journalists.

Easy prey for disease

“Malnutrition is definitely one of the factors that reduces the immunity, especially of the vulnerable population, elderly and children, who then can’t really cope with any disease, any pathogen that they can get,” Mr. Jasarevic said, describing a “vicious circle of not having access to enough food, to clean water, to clean sanitation, not having access to basic health services”.

Mr. Jašarević paid tribute to the dedication of health workers who have returned to their facilities once they feel secure enough, to try and get vital services running again. Out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals, only 13 are “partially functioning”, he said.

Health centre reopens

In more positive news, hundreds of Gazans sought help at a newly reopened UN health centre in Khan Younis, six months after it was severely damaged and forced to close due to heavy fighting, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) said on Tuesday.

The UNRWA Japanese Health Center in Khan Younis offers primary healthcare services and houses a pharmacy and medical staff who had previously fled as fighting and Israeli tanks rolled through the streets outside.

“People in Gaza desperately need healthcare, but only a fraction of UNRWA health centres are operational due to the ongoing military operations and damage and destruction of UNRWA facilities,” UNRWA Senior Communications Officer, Louise Wateridge, told UN News. “Less than one-third of our health centres are operational.”

On its first day back up and running, 33 medical staff reported for duty and supported more than 900 patients seeking treatment, she added.

‘Sick people feel relieved’

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Among the medical staff at the centre, lab technician Abou Omar described the trauma of having to flee with other Gazans in January as Israeli tanks approached. “I have been working in the Japanese clinic for 20 years…I was in the clinic until the last day. I went through the very bitter and very difficult experience of displacement. Our spirits lifted after we heard that the Japanese clinic is functioning again; sick people feel relieved.”

Today, the centre offers pre and post-natal care and blood tests, treatment for non-communicable diseases and provision of critical outpatient treatment, after the UN agency led efforts to clear broken masonry, glass and bullets from the facility.

Like many UNRWA health facilities, the Japanese health centre operates double-shift rotations to manage the high influx of patients from 8am to 5pm. But referrals to UNRWA-contracted hospitals have become increasingly complex owing to a shortage of electricity and a lack of supplies, said Ms. Wateridge. Today, the agency has 100 temporary medical points and eight out of 26 functional health centres.

Mental health support

As of 26 June, the UN agency provided mental health and psychosocial support services in Gaza’s Middle and Khan Younis areas with teams of psychiatrists and supervisors to assist special cases referred from health centres and shelters.

UNRWA teams responded to 626 cases in health centres and at medical points through individual consultations, offering awareness sessions and support for cases of gender-based violence. The UN agency’s staff also provided medical care for 391 post-natal and pregnant women at high risk.

Insufficient capacity

Total capacity at the six partially functional hospitals in southern Gaza - including three in Deir Al Balah and three in Khan Younis – is just 1,334 beds.

Out of 11 field hospitals in the Gaza Strip, three have had to temporarily shut down and four are only partially functioning, “due to the hostilities in Rafah and reduced access”, WHO said.

Regarding the hospital infrastructure, “the level of destruction is such that it is difficult to even imagine how much time will it take [to rebuild] once the war is over,” Mr. Jašarević stressed.

Tedros slams evacuations

There’s really no safe corner in Gaza,” insisted the Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warning in an online post that the latest reports of evacuation orders in Gaza City “will further impede delivery of very limited lifesaving care”.

Al-Ahli and Patient Friendly hospitals are out of service; patients either self-evacuated, were given early discharge or referred to Kamal Adwan and Indonesian hospitals, which are suffering shortage of fuel, beds and trauma medical supplies,” the WHO chief continued.

Indonesian Hospital is triple over its capacity. Al-Helou Hospital is within the blocks of the evacuation order but continues to be partially functional. As-Sahaba and Al-Shifa hospitals are in close proximity to the areas under evacuation order but remain functional so far. Six medical points and two primary health care centers are also within the evacuation zones.”

Nowhere and no-one is safe

Beyond the direct consequences of the Israeli military’s relentless bombardment and shelling which continued overnight into Tuesday, “everyone in Gaza” is at risk of getting sick and dying for lack of care, Mr. Jašarević said.

The situation is particularly dire for pregnant women, people living with chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes, injured people who are not treated on time and children threatened by waterborne diseases.

He reiterated the agency’s appeal for the opening of all border crossings into the enclave, in order to enable desperately needed medical evacuations.

“More than 10,000 people need to receive specialized medical care outside of Gaza. These people cannot wait,” he insisted.

The flow of medical relief is also at a standstill and the UN health agency said that none of its trucks passed last week into Gaza.

Asked about the current state of health facilities in the Strip, Mr. Jašarević said that hospitals were being either evacuated or destroyed by bombing, with no possibility of rebuilding until the fighting stops.

According to the latest emergency update from the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, within the course of just one week, patients and medical staff evacuated three hospitals in southern Gaza, “in fear of intensified military activities that could render the health facilities non-functional or inaccessible”.