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Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
23 January 2009

Displaced families in Gaza face public health crisis

By Charmaine Seitz

NEW YORK, USA, 23 January 2009 – While the fighting in Gaza has stopped, tens of thousands of Palestinians remain in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) emergency shelters. Thousands of others who fled their homes remain with friends or relatives.

Entire neighbourhoods were demolished in the Gaza Strip during the 23 days of fighting, leaving many without homes to return to. Palestinian officials estimate that 5,000 houses were damaged.

“We are happy not to hear the shelling anymore,” said Reem Shamieh, 16, “but now our wounds open as we hear what happened to our friends.”

UNRWA provides basic commodities – including drinking water, bread and tinned meat. – to people seeking refuge. However, conditions in the emergency shelters are dire and humanitarian aid officials warn of a growing public health crisis.

‘It’s very difficult’

Food and water rations are low, officials say, due to the UN’s inability to restock warehouses prior to the start of the conflict on 27 December. Basic supplies and fuel have been restricted from entering Gaza for months.

Electricity remains sporadic, and many neighbourhoods are without water and sewage disposal because pumps have stopped running.

Reem’s family in Gaza City opened their home during the fighting to relatives forced out of their own houses. Forty people, 20 of them children, were crammed into five rooms.

“It’s very difficult,” Reem said in the final days of the incursion. “If we can get to sleep at all, then we wake to the sound of shelling. I play with the kids to keep them from thinking about the shelling.”

No running water

Sometimes the family’s adults spent an entire day looking for bread to feed all those mouths. They still have no cooking gas, and are relying on a makeshift fireplace to make meals from canned food.

There has been no running water in the house, either. Every day, the family has to collect water from a neighbour’s well. UNICEF’s provision of bottled water has given the neighbourhood some temporary relief.

At the same time, the winter cold and rains have set in. Reem’s young cousin has just developed an ear infection. One doctor worries about the spread of illness and respiratory infections in crowded shelters.

The World Health Organization warns of the spread of disease due to unrecovered corpses and the unchecked flow of sewage.

Gap in health and immunization

Hospitals are overwhelmed by the large numbers of injuries. Palestinian officials say that 5,300 people were injured in the fighting, more than 1,800 of them children.

Two UNICEF generators are being used to keep the blood bank at the proper temperature, as hospitals run low on fuel.

Health officials are also deeply concerned about the long-term ramifications of the weeks-long halt of immunization efforts. The Ministry of Health set up emergency vaccination clinics to immunize children against meningitis, polio and measles, but “people were afraid to come,” said UNICEF Health Officer Rafat Hassouna.

Immunization rates have increased from 20 per cent to more than 70 per cent now that the fighting has stopped. The gap in coverage, however, has health workers worried.

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