Gaza, smashed by Israeli strikes, sees new threat: Disease

This story was created by the team at The Washington Post and curated by Slingshot Media’s advocacy team

JERUSALEM — Israeli strikes killed one of Tahani Abu Taima’s sons and one of her brothers, she says. But she fears a different killer is stalking what’s left of her family: disease.

The World Health Organization warns that Gaza’s health-care system is “collapsing” and that “worrying signals of epidemic diseases” are emerging.

Abu Taima’s 2-year-old daughter is suffering from diarrhea, vomits, sneezes and is “shaking from the cold and lack of food,” the mother of six told The Washington Post from the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The child “asks me for food all the time, but I am unable to provide,” Abu Taima said. “Which forces me to give her anything, even if it is contaminated.”

Abu Taima, 42, herself has thyroid cancer. But she has also developed a severe respiratory infection, she says, caused, she believes, by the pollution of war: dust and other particles that linger long after Israeli bombardments. Without electricity or fuel, she burns firewood when available to warm the family, “even though I am certain that the resulting smoke will kill me.”


She has been unable to get care. The family is sheltering in Nasser Hospital, but the overwhelmed facility is providing only limited treatment to the most severely wounded. Among patients and displaced people, crowded together without clean water or sanitation, infections spread rapidly. Abu Taima has no access to medicines.

“We are not alive,” she said. “We are dead and have living skeletons.”

A vehicle sits idle Saturday in Rafah in southern Gaza. A severe fuel shortage caused by the war has worsened a transportation crisis. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)

After 10 weeks of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, crowded, besieged, bombarded and famished Gaza is now fertile ground for disease.


Staph infections, chickenpox, rashes, urinary tract infections, meningitis, mumps, scabies, measles and food poisoning all are rising, the Gaza Health Ministry and individual doctors say. The WHO is particularly concerned about bloody diarrhea, jaundice and respiratory infections. The United Nations is tracking 14 diseases with “epidemic potential,” Reuters reported.


“The risk is expected to worsen with the deteriorating situation and approaching winter conditions,” the WHO said in a statement.

The conflict erupted when Hamas and allied gunmen streamed out of Gaza on Oct. 7 to attack Israeli communities. They killed 1,200 people and took 240 back to the enclave as hostages.


Israel responded with a military campaign aimed at eradicating Hamas. Israeli forces have killed about 18,800 people in the territory and wounded more than 50,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that this month, “health needs have increased dramatically, and the capacity of the health system has been reduced to one-third of what it was.”

Two-thirds of primary care centers are closed, the WHO says; 11 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functioning. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees is operating nine of its 28 primary health clinics. Nearly 85 percent of Gazans have been forced from their homes, and about 1.3 million people live in shelters where there is an average of one toilet for every 220 people and one shower for every 4,500.

There is particular concern about disease outbreaks in Rafah, where almost half of the enclave’s 2.2 million people are sheltering in homes, schools, camps and streets. Israel told Palestinians to go to the southern city for their safety.

A sick child is attended to last week at Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)

Children have been hit hard. Cases of diarrhea in children jumped 66 percent from Nov. 29 to Dec. 10, and among the rest of the population, cases increased by 55 percent, according to WHO data assessed by Reuters. 

Naima al-Tatri and her children have moved four times since Oct. 7. The family now lives in a tent outside a school in Rafah.

“My children have digestive problems and vomit all the time, and I cannot find a way to treat them,” said Tatri, 37. “Hospitals are full. There are no services at all. No international organizations have visited us.”

“I wonder,” she said, “where is the world regarding our suffering?”

Hala Afshour, 16, is battling chickenpox, a respiratory illness, digestive problems and a urinary tract infection, on top of preexisting liver problems, she told The Post.

Five years ago, Afshour had surgery so she would no longer need dialysis. But since the war began, she said, she hasn’t been able to find the medications she takes. She and her six sisters moved twice around Gaza City before arriving last month in Rafah. They’re staying in a school crowded with fellow displaced people. Their father stayed behind to care for his blind elderly mother.


In Rafah, Afshour said, she and her sisters developed respiratory problems. Then “some strange bubbles began to appear on my body,” she said. A doctor told her it was chickenpox and gave her a lotion.

She is supposed to apply the lotion twice a day, but “there is no place for me to have my privacy.” She’s in constant pain, she said, and can’t sleep. Her clothes rub against the chickenpox papules. She has a headache, bone pain and fever. The urinary tract infection, she said, developed because she was “unable to use the bathroom regularly due to the large number of displaced people” and long lines in the school.

Medical personnel at Kuwaiti Hospital treat a rush of wounded people after a strike hit a house last week in central Rafah. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)

Even before the war, health-care needs in Gaza were acute. Many Gazans already suffered from complex health issues. Hospitals were hobbled by frequent power outages and shortages of medicine. Gazans with severe conditions were required to secure difficult-to-obtain Israeli permits to leave the enclave for treatment.

Scroll to Top