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WHO expert warns of disease risk in Gaza amid a collapsing health care system

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More Palestinians in Gaza could end up dying from untreated diseases than during the current conflict with Israel. That's the stark warning from the World Health Organization unless the territory's health system is urgently restored. More than 200 health care workers have been killed since the start of the war on October 7. Joining us to discuss the deteriorating situation in Gaza is World Health Organization spokeswoman Dr. Margaret Harris. Welcome to the program.

MARGARET HARRIS: Thank you very much, Ayesha. It's a pleasure to be with you.

RASCOE: So how many of Gaza's hospitals are actually functioning?

HARRIS: This is a moveable number. At the worst stage, we only had about eight hospitals functioning. And by functioning, they were only really able often just to deal with the huge numbers of people who were wounded. Now, since we had this pause, we were able to bring in fuel, medicines like anaesthetic drugs, the things that let them do more. And 15 hospitals were able to provide some services, even including Al-Shifa Hospital, which was able to start dialysis.

RASCOE: And Al-Shifa Hospital is Gaza's largest hospital, right?

HARRIS: Yes, that's right - and most advanced. But now, unfortunately, horrifically, the fighting has begun again. And we know that Gaza can't afford to lose any more hospitals or hospital beds.

RASCOE: The priority at the moment is just treating those injured in the Israeli bombardment. But are they receiving the treatment that they need?

HARRIS: The health care workers are doing their very best. And as you mentioned, we've lost a lot of health care workers either to bombardment or direct attacks on hospitals themselves. They simply don't have the places to provide the care. There are 20,000 health care workers across Gaza, but they need to be in a safe place that's equipped and permits them to deliver the health care. They're running from patient to patient. They're trying to at least care for the wounds, give the pain relief. But it is not in any way the level of care they would normally be able to provide. It's Band-Aid medicine at best. And the people who've got other conditions are not getting any care at all.

RASCOE: And obviously, if you need dialysis or something like that, you really can't go without that.

HARRIS: That's correct. So that's why it was critical to keep those dialysis services functioning. There are at least a thousand patients we know of who are in acute kidney failure, who need that dialysis, or they die. Now, there are lots of efforts to try to transfer them to the south or transfer them out to Egypt. But again, there will be other people whose chronic illnesses tip them over into kidney failure, tip them over into diabetic coma, tip them over into heart attacks - and not the services that can possibly deal with that.

RASCOE: According to the U.N., nearly 2 million Palestinians have now been forced to flee their homes. Many are in cramped conditions or in tents. How worried are you about the spread of disease in those sorts of conditions?

HARRIS: We are extremely concerned, and we're already seeing very, very worrying outbreaks, such as outbreaks of jaundice, which we are presuming is hepatitis A because the conditions for hepatitis A are everywhere. That's dirty water, lack of sewage services, overcrowding. But we can't actually test to know whether it's hepatitis A because the laboratory we would normally use is in Al-Shifa Hospital and is currently not functioning. The main diseases we are seeing spreading currently are the diarrheal diseases because, again, this is down to being super overcrowded. So you just can't wash your hands. You're constantly, basically, exposed to everybody else's bacteria and viruses. And we're seeing huge numbers of diarrhea on what we would normally see in populations in Gaza at this time.

RASCOE: With the pause in fighting now over, how worried are you that this health system, which was already so damaged - that it could simply collapse?

HARRIS: We're extremely concerned. Gaza can't afford to lose any more hospitals or hospital beds. This was a health system already on its knees. Now, during the pause, it was like we could give it a hand, get it up, and it was extraordinary how quickly there was some bounce back. But that is all about to be lost. And also, all the things we need to do, like bring in the many teams around the world who want to come in and help - they can't come in until there is a safe place and safety for them to do their work. So all the enormous work that needs to be done to repair the massive damage and to get the system back up and running can't happen until there's a cease-fire that holds.

RASCOE: That's Dr. Margaret Harris from the World Health Organization. Thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you very much, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUKAI'S "AZURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.