Amid Israel-Hamas war, scarce supplies and disease outbreaks threaten thousands of civilian lives in Gaza: Experts

Experts anticipate the situation only getting worse in the near future.

November 18, 2023, 9:08 AM

The conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has led to scarce access to food, water, sanitation and medical supplies in overcrowded shelters and facilities that are housing hundreds of thousands of displaced people, many women and children, according to multiple humanitarian organizations.

Current conditions put these people at high risk for a number of life-threatening health conditions, including rapidly spreading respiratory and diarrheal illnesses, according to Richard Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization representative in the West Bank and Gaza. He said he anticipates this dire situation only getting worse in the near future.

"We are extremely concerned about the spread of disease when the winter season arrives," Peeperkorn told Reuters on Friday.

"The people within Gaza, they not only have to protect themselves and their families from the constant violence that surrounds them and that is above them but also the disease that's on the ground. All of which they have little to no protection for," Dr. Darien Sutton, emergency medicine physician and ABC News medical correspondent, told ABC News.

Hamas terrorists launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct 7, which killed at least 1,200 people and injured thousands more, according to Israeli offices. In response to the attack, the Israel Defense Forces launched an operation in Gaza that has so far killed at least 12,000 people according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. WHO estimates 1.5 million people are displaced due to this conflict.

On average in 2021 and 2022, this region saw 2,000 cases of diarrhea per month, but the current conditions have given rise to over 33,551 reported cases of diarrhea since mid-October – over half of these in children less than 5 years old, according to the WHO. Nearly 55,000 cases of upper reparatory illnesses have also been reported – the sixth most common cause of death in the Gaza Strip prior to this conflict, WHO said.

A makeshift operating theater area is seen inside Al Shifa hospital during the Israeli ground operation around the hospital, in Gaza City, Nov. 12, 2023.
Ahmed El Mokhallalati via Reuters

The International Rescue Committee says 95% of residents in Gaza have no access to safe water, and current conditions will "inevitably lead to waterborne illnesses like cholera and typhoid."

Severely limited border crossings into the region have prevented adequate aid from reaching enough of these stranded civilians, experts said. Gaza has been under siege since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack with limited supply runs since.

"Before the 7th of October, an average of 500 trucks a day were crossing into Gaza with essential supplies. Since the 7th of October, only 217 trucks have entered in total. To sustain the humanitarian response on the scale needed, we need hundreds of trucks to enter Gaza every day," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, said at a recent press conference.

Hospitals in Gaza have also been attacked and cut off from fuel and electricity during the increasing conflict, preventing many from providing basic medical care, officials said. Israel has defended targeting the hospitals because it says Hamas uses them as operating bases.

"Fourteen out of 36 hospitals in the Gaza strip are non-functional. However, functionality is affected by lack of food and clean water, and the lack of fuel to power generators," the WHO Director-General said.

The treatment for diarrhea is supportive care with fluids and electrolytes, including oral rehydration therapy (ORT) or intravenous fluids given in medical settings, that replace what is lost during the illness, Sutton said. While this sounds simple, Sutton said the current conditions and scarce supplies in Gaza prevent this lifesaving care from reaching those who need it – which can quickly become deadly if untreated. Diarrheal illnesses are the second leading killer of children under 5 in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts said other diseases are at risk of spreading in Gaza, including cholera, which is a type of highly contagious, life-threatening, diarrheal illness spread through contaminated water. Without treatment, it can lead to death within hours, according to WHO.

Additionally, WHO reports "at least 8944 cases of scabies and lice, 1005 cases of chickenpox, 12635 cases of skin rash have also been reported." This crisis is only expected to get worse without aid imminently, experts said.

The United Nation's Security Council passed a resolution on Wednesday asking for urgent humanitarian pauses and corridors in the region that could allow opportunity for resources to reach those in need that have yet to be carried out.

Smoke billows following an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip on Nov. 16, 2023.
Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

"The nightmare in Gaza is more than a humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis of humanity," António Guterres, WHO Secretary-General, said at a recent press conference.

Dr. Jade A Cobern, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician specialized in preventive medicine and member of the ABC News Medical

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