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The lives of malnourished children in Gaza endangered by obliteration and obstruction of medical care

Malnourished children in Gaza are not getting the food and medical care they need to survive with food being blocked at every turn and the health system obliterated, Save the Children has warned, as families report children are suffering from massive weight loss, weakness and cracked skin.

Gaza’s 346,000 children under the age of five are at the greatest risk of malnutrition as the already catastrophic situation rapidly deteriorates across the enclave. In the north, it is estimated that one in three children under the age of two are now suffering from wasting, the most severe form of malnutrition, compared to one in six children in January, according to The Global Nutrition Cluster – a group of humanitarian organisations focused on nutrition.

Yahya- is one of the 1.2 million displaced people now living in Rafah in southern Gaza, a city usually housing 280,000. Yahya’s- nephew died as a result of severe hunger; a consequence of restrictions on access to aid and commercial goods across Gaza since October 2023. He said:

“He got sick due to lack of food and nutrition. He got anemia. He also had special needs. God bless his soul. We will all eventually die. But we should not die this way. It’s not fair to die of hunger.”

Malnourished children urgently need nutritionally rich food which is easy to consume such as ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) and therapeutic milk for young children. They also need essential medicines such as antibiotics, health facilities, and trained health care workers who can detect and treat malnutrition. However, with more than 400 attacks on healthcare documented since October, 26 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have been rendered completely non-functional, while entry of medical supplies into Gaza remains restricted.

Once severe acute malnutrition takes hold, children often develop other conditions. The immune system of a severely malnourished child begins to shut down, making otherwise non-life-threatening conditions like diarrhoea, potentially lethal. Diarrhoea is currently rampant in Gaza due to mass displacement and unhygienic conditions exacerbated by the destruction of sanitation infrastructure, with even newborns to six month -old babies suffering from diarrhoea.

Save the Children has spoken to Mostafa-, 48, a father of eight ranging in age from 3 to 20 years old. He’s from Rafah and still lives in Rafah, he said:

“The children developed signs of malnutrition, especially in the first four months. They lost a lot of weight, did not have energy to play. Even their skin started to get yellowish due to lack of iron and sugar. My 10-year-old son started to develop cracks in his skin, especially around the eyes.”

Early treatment is critical to treat malnutrition and to prevent children from facing life-long impact, including stunted physical growth and cognitive impairment affecting their memory and ability to learn at school.

Hamdi-, 30, Save the Children staff member in Gaza said:

“This war has also impacted children’s appetite even in places where food was available. It is visible that children are losing 50-60% of weight and their basic interactions and understanding of things have been really affected.”

Life-saving supplies which could be used to treat malnourished children are being delayed and denied entry by the Government of Israel. Essential food and medical items are obstructed from entering Gaza for days, weeks, or even months. Others are being denied entry altogether by the Israeli authorities, with reports of oxygen cylinders, ventilators and water purifiers being turned away at the border. Air drops cannot circumvent these restrictions, as the specialised assistance malnourished children need cannot be dropped, while consumption of the sudden and unsupervised types of food that can be dropped can be life-threatening. Air drops have killed dozens of people including children in Gaza in the last few weeks, either directly or through drowning and stampedes as children and families try to reach the lifesaving aid they need.

Attacks on aid workers and food distributions make aid delivery unsafe, further restricting an already hamstrung humanitarian response. It is particularly difficult to reach children and families in the north of Gaza where famine is imminent according to recent data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). Israeli authorities continue to deny UNRWA – the organisation that can reach the most people with life-saving aid – access to northern Gaza to deliver emergency food assistance.

Xavier Joubert, Save the Children Country Director in the occupied Palestinian territory, said:

“We’re witnessing an annihilation of the physical and mental well-being of children in Gaza. The rate at which they’ve been pushed to – and beyond – the brink of death in the past six months is nothing short of staggering. It’s unconscionable that life-saving food, nutritional products and medical supplies are sitting at the border, just miles away from where children are needlessly and painfully dying from malnutrition. Starvation must never be used as a weapon of war. 27 children have already been killed by starvation and disease – if the world fails to act now countless more children will be added to that number.”

All children in Gaza are facing food shortages, particularly nutritious items such as fruit and vegetables.

Marwan-, 49, a Save the Children staff member in Gaza said:

“Nutrients like vitamins and iron that children get from fruits and vegetables have become scarce and families cannot access it anymore. They are not available in the local market. Families eat the same meals for days because they do not have alternatives. They cannot provide diverse nutrition for their children.”

The UN Security Council has already demanded a temporary ceasefire – this needs to be implemented now and sustained definitively. The Government of Israel must also allow life-saving medical equipment, supplies, teams, and medicine to enter the Gaza Strip at the speed and scale required to prevent more children from being killed by malnutrition and disease.

Save the Children has been providing essential services and support to Palestinian children impacted by the ongoing conflict since 1953. Save the Children’s team in the occupied Palestinian territory has been working around the clock, prepositioning vital supplies to support people in need, and working to find ways to get assistance into Gaza.

 

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