With Gaza’s infant mortality rate up for the first time in 50 years, health officials worry that a continued blockade, and lack of sufficient neonatal care, may cause the upward trend to continue.
For the first time in 50 years, Gaza’s refugee population has seen an increase in the number of infant deaths, according to an UNRWA study published earlier this month.
Published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, the survey findings were based on results collected from August 2013 to October 2013, prior to the 2014 war that left dozens of infants dead and caused further damage to Gaza’s already ailing health infrastructure.
“The finding is truly alarming, and is a strong alert from the children of Gaza,” Dr. Akihiro Seita, UNRWA’s health director, told +972. He also noted in an UNRWA press release that the trend was unprecedented in the Middle East.
“The rate had declined quite smoothly over the region. Progress in combating infant mortality doesn’t usually reverse. The only other examples I can think of are in some African countries which experienced HIV epidemics,” he said in the statement.
In Gaza, the number of infant deaths increased from 2008, when 20.2 were reported per 1,000 live births, to 2013, when there were 22.4 per 1,000 live births. This increase is attributable to a sharp rise in the mortality rates among babies under one month old.
The findings also show a “disparity in [infant mortality] between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. In 2013, the infant mortality rate was estimated at 3.5 per 1000 live births in Israel, compared with 15.8 per 1,000 live births in the occupied Palestinian territory,” the report said.
It surveyed the 1.3 million Gazans who are registered with UNRWA who make up roughly 60% of the isolated enclave’s population, as part of a series of studies carried out every five years in order to track the progress of children’s healthcare initiatives.
While health officials say it is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of increased infant mortality rates, the report acknowledges the detrimental impact of Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip.
The blockade of Gaza has over the past years devastated the Strip’s economy and weakened an already overburdened health infrastructure.
In Gaza today, access to drugs, medical supplies and clean water is limited. The Israeli assault in 2014, known as Operation Protective Edge, completely destroyed one hospital and eight primary health centers, and severely damaged others.
“Israel uses weapons that have deadly effects,” Dr. Basil Aila, a physician in the Gaza Strip told +972, adding that “the immune system of a child is too weak to bear such toxic chemicals.” He was referring to Israel’s use of white phosphorus, a highly-flammable material that continues to burn after initial contact, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.
Dr. Aila notes that infertility rates in Gaza have been on the increase for the same reason.
The results are described as “worrying” by the study’s authors and the report comes at a time when UNRWA is facing a severe shortfall in funding that may force it to scale back its services in the coming year.
Although all its primary health centers are set to remain open, the report highlights the increasing instability of basic service provision in the Gaza Strip and its impact on the health of the general population. Due to its concern over the study’s conclusions, UNRWA announced that it will conduct an additional assessment of infant mortality rates in the Gaza Strip in the upcoming year.