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New mothers in Gaza struggle to access basic medical services


Delivered into hell. That is how Tess Ingram of the U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, describes the world newborn babies are meeting in Gaza. Ingram recently spent a week observing the conditions at two hospitals in Gaza.

TESS INGRAM: The care that people are able to receive is incredibly limited. The hospitals are so very crowded because there's just so many people in need, both from injuries from the war but also from preexisting conditions that need to continue to receive treatment, and then, of course, women giving birth and the care that their newborn babies need.

MCCAMMON: UNICEF estimates some 20,000 babies have been born in Gaza since Israel began its offensive there in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks. Only about a third of the territory's hospitals are still partially functioning, and Ingram says pregnant women have trouble accessing even the most basic of medical services.

INGRAM: I spoke to one woman. Her name was Meshael (ph), and she was living in the middle area of Gaza. And when her house was hit, her husband was buried under the rubble for several days, and her baby stopped moving inside of her. And she said that she wasn't able to get a scan or any sort of assessment of the baby's condition. When I met her, it had been a month after that terrible incident. And she confirmed her husband was fortunately rescued, and he was OK, but she was sure that their baby was dead, and she was waiting for medical care. So these are the sorts of things that women are experiencing even before they get to a hospital. And then once they're there, for example, anesthetic is not something that's easily available, let alone other more usual medications that women might receive.

MCCAMMON: And I'm sorry. The woman you just described - you said her husband was ultimately rescued, but what about the baby?

INGRAM: So she was waiting when I met her at the Emirati hospital to see a doctor. But baby hadn't moved in about a month. And she said that she was sure that the baby was dead. And we spoke for a long time, and she was obviously distraught by the whole situation. It was her second pregnancy. But she said to me, you know, I think it's best that a baby isn't born into this nightmare. It was probably meant to be, which was just heartbreaking.

MCCAMMON: For those who are able to make it to a hospital and give birth there in Gaza, what happens afterward? I mean, how long, for example, are they able to stay in the hospital after the birth?

INGRAM: Not long at all. So at the moment, because of the sheer, you know, lack of staff compared to the enormous needs, women are having caesareans and then getting a short amount of time, maybe an hour or two, in a bed before being put in a chair because they need that bed for somebody else and then being discharged within about three hours unless there is some kind of urgent need for them to stay in the hospital. So mothers are leaving hours after having a serious caesarean operation, with a newborn baby, back to the streets in many cases. We're talking about displaced women returning to makeshift shelters of tarpaulins and blankets on the streets of Gaza, where they're not only are at threat because of the bombardments, but they also don't have basic things like clean water or food or even clothes for the baby. I met one mother who was taking her newborn baby back to their tent, and the baby didn't have any clothes.

MCCAMMON: We know that nutrition and water are a problem. The WHO says that more than 90% of Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger. What does that mean for breastfeeding mothers, for newborns and small babies?

INGRAM: Yeah. So it's a really good question. And it's something that UNICEF is trying to prevent and to respond to. You can imagine that as a pregnant woman, you want to make sure that you're eating properly to keep yourself healthy but also to make sure that the baby is healthy. And so many of the pregnant women that I met and I spoke to were - that was their greatest concern, was ensuring that they had enough of those nutrients to ensure a healthy pregnancy. But food is incredibly limited. And most people at the moment are relying on very basic things like bread or tins of, like, canned vegetables. So mums were concerned about that.

And UNICEF is there in Gaza trying to help them. We're providing micronutrient supplements - things like iron and folate to try and keep them healthy. And then for newborn babies, we're providing things like ready-to-use infant formula that can be used by mums who aren't able to breastfeed because maybe their nutrition is low, or they've been traumatized by what they've been through. And so they can use this formula that doesn't have to be mixed with water because of the concerns of safe water. So these are some of the things that we're trying to do. But the amount of aid that's been able to get in is just not the same as the need. And so we need to be able to get more aid in to do a better job of responding to the needs of pregnant women and children in Gaza.

MCCAMMON: We've learned in recent days that several nations, including the United States, have suspended funding to one of the key United Nations agencies involved in providing aid to people in Gaza. That's the agency known as UNWRA. And that decision came after Israel presented evidence alleging that a dozen UNWRA employees were involved in the October 7 attacks. How much is that development harming efforts to help infants and new mothers in Gaza?

INGRAM: The situation was already at breaking point. When I was in Gaza, I could just see just how exhausted people are by more than a hundred days of war. And nothing justifies the horrific events on the 7 of October, and these are extremely serious allegations which are being investigated, but ultimately, I think what we need to keep in front of mind is what happens to the children of Gaza when they're already at this breaking point when the major U.N. agency in Gaza is not able to fully function? So I think that's the thing that we at UNICEF are thinking about at the moment and making sure that the needs of the children in Gaza can continue to be met.

MCCAMMON: That's Tess Ingram with UNICEF. Tess, thanks so much for your time.

INGRAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTTMAR LIEBERT'S "TANA'S BLUE") 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.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.

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