[News] Contaminated Drinking Water in Gaza Spurs ‘Blue Baby Syndrome’
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Fri Nov 9 10:37:12 EST 2018
Contaminated Drinking Water in Gaza Spurs ‘Blue Baby Syndrome’
November 8, 2018
The unshaven doctor with circles under his eyes enters the children’s
ward at Al Nassar Hospital in Gaza City. It’s a Thursday evening, almost
the weekend. The ward is bleak and eerily quiet, but for the
occasional wail of an infant.
At each cubicle, sectioned off by curtains, it’s a similar image: A baby
lies alone in a bed, hooked up to tubes, wires and a generator; a mother
sits in silent witness at the bedside.
Dr. Mohamad Abu Samia, the hospital’s director of paediatric medicine,
exchanges a few quiet words with one mother, then gently lifts
the infant’s gown, revealing a scar from heart surgery nearly half the
length of her body.
At the next cubicle, he attends to a child suffering from severe
malnutrition. She lies still, her tiny body connected to a respirator.
Because electricity runs only four hours a day in Gaza, the baby must
stay here, where generators keep her alive.
“We are very busy,” the overwhelmed doctor says. “Babies suffering from
dehydration, from vomiting, from diarrhoea, from fever.” The
skyrocketing rate of diarrhoea, the world’s second largest killer of
children under five, is reason enough for alarm.
But in recent months Dr. Abu Samia has seen sharp rises
in gastroenteritis, kidney disease, paediatric cancer, marasmus – a
disease of severe malnutrition appearing in infants – and “blue baby
syndrome”, an ailment causing bluish lips, face, and skin, and blood the
colour of chocolate.
Before, the doctor says, he saw “one or two cases” of blue baby syndrome
in five years. Now it’s the opposite – five cases in one year.
Asked if he has studies to back up his findings, he says: “We live in
Gaza, in an emergency situation … We have time only to relieve the
problem, not to research it.”
Yet Palestinian Ministry of Health figures support the doctor’s
findings. They show a “doubling” of diarrheal disease, rising to
epidemic levels, as well as spikes last summer in salmonella and
even typhoid fever.
Independent, peer-reviewed medical journals have also documented
increased infant mortality
and an “alarming magnitude” of stunting
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29268788> among Gaza’s children.
A Rand Corporation study
found that bad water is a leading cause of child mortality in Gaza.
Simply put, Gaza’s children are facing a deadly health epidemic of
“So much suffering,” says Dr. Abu Samia. It is, he says, a matter of
“life and death”.
Multiple factors are to blame for the uncoiling health crisis, but
medical experts agree on one central culprit: Gaza’s scarce and
contaminated drinking water, owing to Israel’s economic siege, its
repeated bombing of water and sewage infrastructure and a collapsing
aquifer of such poor quality that 97 percent
<https://phys.org/news/2017-03-war-scarred-gaza-pollution-health-woes.html> of Gaza’s
drinking-water wells are below minimal health standards for human
Dr. Majdi Dhair, director of preventive medicine at the Palestinian
Ministry of Health, reports a “huge increase” in waterborne disease,
which he says a “directly related to drinking water” and to
contamination from untreated sewage water flowing directly into the
A visit to Gaza’s densely-packed Shati (or “Beach”) refugee camp helps
explain why. There, 87,000 refugees and their families – expelled from
their towns and villages during the creation of Israel in 1948 – are
packed into half a square kilometre of cement-block structures along the
“Water and electricity? Forget about it,” says Atef Nimnim, who lives
with his mother, wife, and two younger generations – 19 Nimnims in all –
in a small three-room dwelling in Shati.
The Gaza aquifer that sputters through their taps is far too salty,
hardly anyone in Gaza drinks it any more. For drinking water, Atef’s
15-year-old son piles plastic jugs onto a wheelchair and rolls it to the
mosque, where he fills the family’s containers, courtesy ofHamas
Most families, even in the refugee camps, spend up to half their modest
income on the desalinated water from Gaza’s unregulated wells. But even
that sacrifice comes at a cost.
Palestinian Water Authority tests show that up to 70 percent of the
desalinated water delivered by a small army of private trucks and stored
in the camps’ rooftop tanks, is prone to faecal contamination.
Even microscopic amounts of E coli can bloom into a health crisis.
The reason for that, explains Gregor von Medeazza, UNICEF’s water and
sanitation specialist for Gaza, is that the longer the E coli remain in
the water, the more “they start growing” in the water and the worse
it gets. This leads to chronic diarrhoea, which in turn can lead to
stunting in Gaza’s children, as a British medical journal recently
documented <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5740756/>. One
effect, von Medeazza says, is on “brain development,” and a “measurable
effect on the IQ” of affected children.
High salinity and nitrate levels from Gaza’s collapsing aquifer – so
badly overpumped that seawater is flowing in – are at the root of many
of Gaza’s health problems. Elevated nitrate levels lead to hypertension
and renal failure, and are linked to the rise in blue baby syndrome.
Waterborne maladies like infant diarrhoea, salmonella and typhoid fever
are caused by faecal contamination – both from the rooftop desalinated
water and from the 110 million litres of raw and poorly-treated sewage
that flows into the Mediterranean every day.
Because electricity here is shut off for 20 hours a day, Gaza’s sewage
plant is essentially useless; hence, brown water spews into the sea,
24/7, from long pipes above a beach just north of Gaza City. Yet in the
summertime, children continue to swim along Gaza’s beaches.
In 2016, five-year-old Mohammad Al-Sayis swallowed sewage-laced
seawater, ingesting faecal bacteria that led to a fatal brain disease.
Mohammad’s was the first known death by sewage in Gaza.
Making matters worse: Israeli rockets and shells damaged or destroyed
Gaza water towers and pipelines, wells and sewage plants causing an
estimated $34m in damages. This further crippled the delivery of safe,
clean water, deepening the health catastrophe here. An even greater
impact comes from Israel’s economic blockade, which Dr. Abu Samia blames
directly on the area’s growing malnutrition.
The severe shortages of water and electricity, along with rising
poverty, have damaged nutritional levels, Dr. Abu Samia says.
“It is affecting babies.”
Before the siege, he said, he had no patients suffering from malnutrition.
Now he frequently sees children with nutritional disease.
“We are seeing babies with marasmus” – a severe nutritional disease.
“The last two years, it is increasing more and more.”
Gazans well remember the cynical words of Israeli minister Dov Weissglas
in 2006, when he infamously compared the blockade to “a meeting with a
dietician …We have to make them much thinner, but not enough to die.”
*Gaza to become uninhabitable by 2020*
Now, quite apart from the hundreds of deaths by rockets, missiles and
bullets in the three most recent Gaza wars, children here are getting
ill and dying from bad water and the infectious diseases that result.
“Occupation and siege are the primary impediments to the successful
promotion of public health in the Gaza Strip,” declared a 2018 study
in the Lancet, which cited “significant and deleterious effects to
Without a major intervention by the international community, and soon,
humanitarian groups warn Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020 – barely
a year from now.
Failure to urgently intervene will result in “a huge collapse”, says
Adnan Abu Hasna, Gaza spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for
Palestinian refugees, which recently had all its US funding cut by the
Otherwise, in less than two years, he says, “Gaza will not be a liveable
And yet, liveable or not, the vast majority of Gaza’s two million people
have nowhere else to go. Most are simply trying to live as normal lives
as possible under extremely abnormal circumstances.
At dusk on a summer night, on a spit of rock and earth in the middle of
Gaza harbour, five of those two million people try to enjoy a few
minutes of quiet.
All around Ahmad and Rana Dilly and their three young children, the
harbour ripples with life. Fishermen haul in their nets. Kids pose for
selfies on broken concrete blocks and rebar – remnants of an old bombing
Rana pours mango soda; Ahmad insists on handing out some chocolate wafers.
“You are with Palestinians,” he laughs, dismissing those who reject his
Their three young children nibble on chips.
The Dillys have the same problems as many Gaza families.
Ahmad, a money changer, had to rebuild his shop in 2014 after an Israeli
missile destroyed it.
Like most Gazans, the family has to contend with the salty water from
the taps and the inherent risks of disease from the trucked water they
rely on. But these problems mean little to them compared with their wish
to feel safe and to enjoy fleeting moments of living like a normal family.
“I know the situation is horrible, but I just want to let my kids have a
little change from time to time,” Ahmad says. “I want them to see
something different. I want my family to feel safe.”
In the distance, an explosion echoes. Ahmad pauses for a short moment,
then ignores it.
He says, “I come here to the sea, and forget about all the world.”
/~ Al Jazeera/Days of Palestine/
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