GAZA - UN health agency WHO hailed on Tuesday the “heroic efforts” of staff at Gaza City’s besieged Al-Shifa hospital and expressed concern for hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the enclave where heavy rainfall has caused flooding and aggravated the already dire health crisis.

“Rain will just add further to the suffering” of people in the Strip, WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told reporters in Geneva, at a time when disruptions in sewage pumping and water shortages have caused a spike in waterborne diseases and bacterial infections.

The World Health Organization warned last week that since mid-October, over 33,500 cases of diarrhoea have been reported, mostly among children under five, some 16 times the monthly average.

Facilities run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, where over 580,000 displaced people in southern Gaza had sought shelter due to Israel’s offensive in retaliation for Hamas’ deadly 7 October attacks, are more than nine times over capacity and the overcrowding is posing further health risks.

“We are begging for a ceasefire to happen now,” Dr. Harris insisted.

Hostages’ families in Geneva

Meanwhile in Geneva, the families of some of the 238 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since 7 October were due to continue their advocacy for the release of their loved ones on Tuesday.

A meeting was announced between hostages’ families and Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a UN humanitarian partner organisation.

In a statement, the ICRC said that Ms. Spoljaric would also meet with the Israeli authorities and that the organisation has been “persistently advocating on behalf of the hostages held in Gaza, including directly with Hamas and with actors who may have influence on the parties”.

Health workers ‘doing whatever they can’

WHO’s Dr. Harris described in detail the dire situation at Al-Shifa hospital, which is a focus of operations by the Israeli Defense Forces which claim that Hamas had established a command centre under the hospital – an allegation denied by medical staff.

Speaking of the “heroic” health workers, Dr. Harris said that they are “doing whatever they can to keep going” while the facility has been without power since 11 November and there was not enough food and clean water. Some 700 patients were still present at the site and more than 400 health staff, in addition to around 3,000 displaced persons who had sought refuge there. Dr. Harris said that 28 patient deaths have been reported in the last 48 hours.

Meanwhile, news reports on Tuesday morning indicated that the Israeli military offered to provide incubators to Al-Shifa hospital, where 36 premature babies require constant care. As many as six premature babies had reportedly died over the past three days as their incubators were unable to function owing to the lack of electricity.

Evacuation ‘very difficult’

Asked about the possibility of evacuating patients, Dr. Harris explained that all of those remaining at Al-Shifa required critical support to stay alive. Moving them “would be a very difficult thing to ask in the best circumstances”, Dr. Harris said, let alone amid bombing, armed clashes and a lack of fuel for ambulances.

“The best way would be to stop the hostilities right now and focus on saving lives, not taking lives,” she insisted.

Record number of attacks on healthcare

Some 135 attacks on health facilities have been documented in Gaza over the course of the past month, and WHO’s Dr. Harris said that this was the highest number recorded in such a short amount of time.

“I hope this is the worst we ever see,” she said.

The WHO spokesperson pointed to an “increasing trend” of attacks on health care, also seen in other ongoing conflicts in Sudan and in Ukraine. “It seems that somehow the understanding that a hospital must a safe haven, a place where people come to be treated when they are in need, has been forgotten,” she told journalists.