The threat of infectious diseases in Gaza

Wednesday, 18 October, 2023

The threat of infectious diseases in Gaza

Gaza is facing an unprecedented health crisis that risks an outbreak of deadly infectious diseases, such as cholera, because water and sanitation services have completely broken down, according to Oxfam.

All five of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants and most of its 65 sewage pumping stations have been forced to close. Untreated sewage is now being discharged into the sea and, in some areas, solid waste is accumulating in the streets.

Clean water has now virtually run out. Some people are being forced to drink from farm wells. The UN Water and Sanitation cluster, of which Oxfam is a member, said that only three litres of water a day are now available per person in Gaza. The World Health Organisation recommends one person needs between 50–100 litres of water each day to meet basic health requirements.

Private vendors who run small water desalination or purification plants are now the biggest water suppliers. Oxfam staff said that the cost to buy water has increased fivefold.

Amitabh Behar, Oxfam International Interim Executive Director, said: “There is no power, no food and now no water in Gaza. It risks becoming a breeding ground for cholera and other diseases. The situation for civilians is already intolerable. Our staff are telling us that in some cases, there are up to 70 people crammed into a single room. Humanitarian aid must be allowed into Gaza now.”

Despite the incredible difficulties, two local civil society organisations in Gaza have put together a plan to help people now crammed into shelters with hygiene kits and cash for food from one of the few supermarkets still open.

A spokesperson from one of Oxfam’s partners, Palestine Medical Relief Society, talked to Oxfam today. Without wishing to be identified, the spokesperson said, “We’ve reached a point where midwives are having to assist in delivering babies over the phone, as there’s no security even in childbirth. Our plan is to deliver aid as soon as roads open up, we are just waiting for any sign to provide people in Gaza. We’re in constant contact with those on the ground, awaiting any chance to help.”

Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme said, "The very place that can save the life of an injured civilian, can become a place of death and those health workers who risk their lives to save people are at risk of death so in that context, it’s exceptionally important that everybody works to protect healthcare installations. They are well identified, everyone knows where they are and they need to be de-conflicted and protected.”

“Aid in this situation is desperately needed, people are not just being killed in the attacks but also from diseases caused from unsanitary conditions, lack of food and the unhealthy conditions for both men, women and even children. Gazans are being forced to use unclean water, struggle to get enough food to feed themselves, and deal with severe shortages of essential medical supplies,” said the Palestine Medical Relief Society spokesperson.

Behar said, “The commitment of our partners to help is inspiring. But no meaningful humanitarian response can happen without a stop to the violence. There must be a ceasefire now, and the immediate, unconditional release of everyone held captive by armed groups in Gaza, and the border crossings opened for aid.”

Oxfam is sending funds which they will spend on kits containing soaps, shampoo, sanitary pads and toothpaste, and cash for food for 800 households.

Given households are now vastly inflated with extended family and squeezed into temporary shelters, including mosques and schools and hospitals, the aid will reach many times more that number. 1.8 million people in Gaza are now food insecure, with the power shutdown hampering people’s ability to cook meals and for bakeries to produce bread. Refrigerators cannot work. The UN’s World Food Program has had to reduce its assistance by 60%. All fishing activity and farming has stopped.

“The chaotic nature of where displaced people are now, and the logistical and political challenges in allowing aid through the borders, gives us grave concern for their future,” Behar said.

“This wait-and-see situation becomes a life-or-death situation.

“Civilians must not be targeted by any side — we need a ceasefire. The international community must address the root causes of the ongoing conflict, that being the occupation and blockade,” he said.

Image credit: ElHajj

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