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Lots of barriers hindering our work in Gaza, Sudan, and Ethiopia - WHO laments

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization   -  
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Sudan war

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus today (10 Jan) said, “almost 90 percent of the population of Gaza – 1.9 million people – have been displaced,” and with “only 15 hospitals are functioning even partially, the lack of clean water and sanitation, and overcrowded living conditions are creating the ideal environment for diseases to spread.”

Dr Tedros told reporters in Geneva that after `100 days of conflict, the situation in the Gaz Strip was “indescribable.”

For her part, Health Emergencies Interventions Technical Officer Dr Teresa Zakaria explained that due to lack of access, “we don't know what we’re dealing with. We don't actually, we're not fully aware of and what measures we need to put in place to actually control any diseases that are spreading.”

Dr Tedros said “delivering humanitarian aid in Gaza continues to face nearly insurmountable challenges.

Intense bombardment, restrictions on movement, fuel shortages, and interrupted communications make it impossible for WHO and our partners to reach those in need.”

He said, “we have the supplies, the teams and the plans in place. What we don’t have is access.”

The Director-General said, “WHO has had to cancel 6 planned missions to northern Gaza since the 26th of December, when we had our last mission, because our requests were rejected, and assurances of safe passage were not provided. A mission planned for today has also been cancelled.”

Briefing from the ground, WHO’s Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Dr Richard Peeperkorn, said, “many missions have been cancelled to the north. What I understand, I think in January 16 or 17 now, out of 21 missions have been cancelled. So that's absolutely not just WHO, that's important missions, of fuel, food, fuel, and water.”

He said, “nowhere in Gaza is a safe place” adding that “if you do not get the permission, you cannot move.”

Dr Peeperkorn said, “our requests were repeatedly rejected. We hope and we plea that we got a kind of confirmation for missions tomorrow to hospitals in the north is approved. So, I am a little bit like first see then believe.”

Dr Tedros said the barrier to delivering humanitarian aid in Gaza “is not the capabilities of the UN, WHO or our partners. The barrier is access,” and called on Israel “to approve requests by WHO and other partners to deliver humanitarian aid.”

He said even without a ceasefire, “corridors can be established to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid and workers.”

He also called for the release of remaining hostages and for “all sides to protect healthcare, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

WHO’S Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director, Dr Michael Ryan, said, “if you continue to destroy infrastructure, if you continue to destroy services at this rate and then you blame the people who are trying to come in and support and help and provide lifesaving assistance? Who is to blame here? Is it the people who are destroying the infrastructure and destroying livelihoods and destroying the services? Or is it those who are trying to help restore those services under intense bombardment? Under the threat of violence? Are they the ones to blame?”

He said the WHO “can do much more” but “must be given the means to do much more and right now that is not possible.”

Turning to Sudan, Dr Tedros said, “the situation is continuing to deteriorate after nine months of conflict” as “increasing violence, mass displacement, spread of diseases such as cholera, insecurity and looting are undermining the work of WHO and our partners to save lives.”

He expressed concern about “reports of increased sexual and gender-based violence, as well as reports of family separation and child recruitment.”

“An estimated 3.5 million children under-five – one in 7,” he said, “are acutely malnourished, and more than 100 thousand are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, requiring hospitalization.”

Sudan, he added, “is suffering from an outbreak of cholera, with around 9,000 cases and 245 deaths.”

Turning to the situation in Ethiopia, Dr Tedros expressed concern about “the worsening health crisis in parts of the country,” particularly the north-western region of Amhara, which “has been badly affected by conflict since April 2023.”

He said, “restrictions on movement are impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance. Fighting is affecting access to health facilities, either through damage or destruction, roadblocks and other obstacles. According to a multiagency report, 61 health facilities have been fully damaged, and 39 partially damaged as a result of the recent conflict in Amhara.”

“Conflict, drought and displacement,” he added, “are driving widespread hunger and disease outbreaks, including media reports of near-famine conditions in Tigray and Amhara.”

On COVID-19, he said that although it is “no longer a global health emergency, the virus is still circulating, changing, and still killing.”

He noted that “data from various sources indicate increasing transmission during December, fuelled by gatherings over the holiday period, and by the JN.1 variant, which is now the most commonly reported variant globally.”

Dr Tedros said, “almost 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 were reported to WHO in December, and there was a 42 percent increase in hospitalizations and a 62 percent increase in ICU admissions, compared with November.”

For her part, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who is the WHO’s Director for Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention, said, “certainly, we are seeing an increase in respiratory infections across the globe due to influenza, to COVID, to adenovirus, to rhinovirus to bacteria like mycoplasma pneumonia that are causing pneumonias particular among children, also we have RSV causing disease in children. So, this year, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, we are seeing cocirculation of many different types of pathogens and this is causing a significant increased burden in hospitalizations, not just for COIVD, for flu, but for these other pathogens as well.”