‘We Are All Sick’: Infectious Diseases Spread Across Gaza

Infectious diseases are ravaging the population of Gaza, health officials and aid organizations said on Monday, citing cold, wet weather; overcrowding in shelters; scarce food; dirty water; and little medicine.

Adding to the crisis in the enclave after more than two months of war, those who become ill have extremely limited treatment options, as hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients injured in airstrikes.

“We are all sick,” said Samah al-Farra, a 46-year-old mother of 10 struggling to care for her family in a camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in southern Gaza. “All of my kids have a high fever and a stomach virus.”

While the collapse of Gaza’s health system has made it challenging to track exact numbers, the World Health Organization has reported at least 369,000 cases of infectious diseases since the war began, using data collected from the Gaza Health Ministry and UNRWA, the U.N. agency that cares for Palestinians — a staggering increase from before the war.

And even the W.H.O.’s extraordinarily high number fails to capture the scale of the crisis: Shannon Barkley, the health systems team lead at the World Health Organization’s offices in Gaza and the West Bank, said it does not include cases in northern Gaza, where the war has destroyed many buildings and what remains of the health system is overwhelmed.

The most common diseases raging through Gaza are respiratory infections, Ms. Barkley said, ranging from colds to pneumonia. Even normally mild illnesses can pose grave risks to Palestinians, especially children, older adults and the immunocompromised, given the dire living conditions, she said.

Ms. al-Farra, speaking by phone, said her family had been sleeping on the ground since they fled Khan Younis, a city just to the north of Rafah, a week ago. For the last three days, Ms. al-Farra said, she and her children have had high fevers and suffered from persistent diarrhea and vomiting.

Like many others in the battered enclave, Ms. al-Farra said that she and her family had been drinking the same foul-smelling water that they used to wash themselves.

“When I wash my hands, I feel like they get dirtier, not cleaner,” she said.

Her youngest child, 6-year-old Hala, spent the majority of the last three days sleeping and was too weak to ask for food after weeks of going hungry, Ms. al-Farra said. “She used to beg for more food, but now she can’t even keep anything down,” she said. Her 9-year-old son, Mohammad, has been having seizures, likely from his fever, she added.

The Israeli military announced on Monday that it was opening a second security checkpoint at the Kerem Shalom Crossing — on the border between Israel, Gaza and Egypt — to screen humanitarian aid arriving via Egypt, a move meant to allow more food, water, medical supplies and shelter equipment into Gaza. Aid organizations have said that the rate of aid coming into Gaza since the collapse of a temporary cease-fire earlier a week and a half ago has been far from enough.

Hospitals that are still considered to be functioning are focused on providing critical care for patients with trauma injuries from airstrikes, according to Marie-Aure Perreaut Revial, an emergency coordinator at Doctors Without Borders, who was speaking from Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza. But many of those patients receive postoperative care in unsanitary conditions, resulting in severe infections, she said.