Inside Gaza’s Primary Maternity Hospital Where Babies Are Being Born Smaller, Premature, and With Congenital Disorders

UNICEF spokesperson Tess Ingram is on the ground at Emirate Hospital and told Jezebel that pregnant women are two to a bed, and up to three babies die per day.

In Depth
Inside Gaza’s Primary Maternity Hospital Where Babies Are Being Born Smaller, Premature, and With Congenital Disorders
Wala sits with her mother, Hanan, and her newborn son, Eysar, inside Emirati Maternity Hospital on April 6. Eysar was born premature and weighed just 4.4 pounds. Wala has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a tent with her other six children. Photo: Tess Ingram/UNICEF

Six months ago, before Israeli forces waged war on Gaza and began targeting and attacking the Palestinian health system, Gaza operated 36 hospitals. Today, only 10 remain and they’re only semi-operational, UNICEF communications specialist Tess Ingram tells Jezebel. Among them is Emirate Maternity Hospital, where Ingram learned from one doctor that a preterm baby recently died because the infant needed heart surgery, but the hospital lacked the resources and specialists due to the strain of Israel’s war. This is the hospital’s everyday reality: Three preterm babies or babies with birth defects or other diseases die per day, the doctor told Ingram—all of which are preventable deaths they’re simply “unable to treat” due to “lack of specialists, specialist equipment, lack of resources.”

Since Israel launched this iteration of attacks on Gaza in October, Ingram says that Emirate has gone from delivering 18 babies per day to 75. The hospital—which has just 40 beds—also went from admitting 40 patients per day to 400 per day. Pregnant women are paired two to a bed and are released within three hours of giving birth, often to overcrowded shelters where disease and infection are rampant. Emirate doctors told Ingram they estimate that the rate of miscarriages they’re treating has doubled since October.

Meanwhile, across Gaza, there’s just one hospital Ingram is aware of that’s still offering limited prenatal services. But other than that, every other hospital is too strained for resources and too overrun with injured victims of Israeli attacks to offer prenatal care. And Israel is continuing to block aid from getting into Gaza. 

“They just don’t see babies that size (11 pounds) anymore. They’re much, much smaller, and many of them have congenital disorders and infections.”

Meanwhile, an estimated 37 mothers are killed by Israeli forces every day, according to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) from March, all as the U.S. continues to fund and send weapons to Israel. With at least 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza killed since October, Gaza’s health ministry reported in February that 70% of the dead are women and children. It’s under these conditions that about 180 women in Gaza are giving birth each day, Ingram told Jezebel. Their pregnancies as well as their own health suffer tremendously from “the trauma of war,” where they’re unable to access basic prenatal care, unable to receive basic nutrition, and are also highly exposed to infections and disease. Humanitarian agencies like Human Rights Watch have determined that Israel is imposing starvation on Gaza’s population of 2.2 million, and pregnant people and newborns are bearing the brunt of this cruelty. “It’s an absolutely nightmarish place to be a pregnant woman, beyond words, and it is a hellish environment to be born into,” Ingram said.

As a result of malnutrition and being unable to access virtually any health care during their pregnancies, Ingram says that there are “exponentially more pregnancy and birth complications, sick pregnant women, babies born sick.” Preterm babies are also far more common: One doctor at Emirate told Ingram that before the war, the hospital was accustomed to larger newborns at around five kilograms or 11 pounds. “They just don’t see babies that size anymore. They’re much, much smaller, and many of them have congenital disorders and infections,” Ingram said. In particular, Ingram says a doctor at Emirate told her he’s never seen “such an acute spread of Hepatitis A as this” at the hospital. 

At Emirate this week, Ingram saw two pregnant women in the ICU with hepatic failure (acute liver failure) from severe cases of Hepatitis A. One doctor told Ingram that a fetus recently died in utero from the virus and the woman carrying the fetus died from it just days later. Hepatitis A is marked by fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and fever: “Obviously Hepatitis A comes from overcrowding and poor sanitation and water, and that’s everywhere, completely unavoidable in Gaza right now,” Ingram said.


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Just last week, Palestinian journalist Mohammed R. Mhawish, who’s currently in Gaza, wrote for The Nation that he has to “queue for hours to get our gallons filled with water.” He explained, “Finding clean drinking water is an extra burden, and usually an impossibility. We are forced to drink tainted water and to accept a trap we have no way out of: The same thing that is helping us stave off dehydration is also infecting our bodies and hurting our stomachs.”

In addition to doctors at Emirate, Ingram also spoke to women who’ve recently given birth or miscarried. One woman was pregnant when an Israeli attack forced her to flee her refugee camp in Khan Yunis. After running for her life from tanks that were shooting at her and the other refugees, she made it to Emirate, where she learned she’d miscarried. Her condition required her to have an emergency C-section. “She was in an incredible amount of pain, still, two days later when I talked to her,” Ingram said. 

Another woman, Wala, is 40-years-old and gave birth to her seventh child just 72 hours before Ingram spoke to her. Wala, who hasn’t been able to get her blood pressure medication for months now, birthed a preterm baby who weighed just 4.4 pounds. Wala is currently displaced in a refugee camp in Rafah, where she sleeps in a tent without a mattress and can’t find any clothes to fit her tiny newborn, or enough food to feed him and her six other kids. “I asked her what they were eating and she said, ‘Look, we have one meal a day of canned food. And because I have so many children, we’re sharing one or two cans between all of us.’”

This week marked Ingram’s second visit to Emirate this year. When she visited in January, the hospital was averaging 89 deliveries per day where it’s currently averaging 75. “There were women and babies everywhere,” Ingram recounted. The slightly reduced number of daily births could stem from several factors, she says, including that many people have since fled Rafah in the south back to the middle part of Gaza due to warnings about pending attacks from Israeli forces. But while the number of daily deliveries has gone down, the number of sick and unhealthy babies and pregnant women has increased substantially from January. “It’s because, at this point, a pregnant woman in April has spent more of their pregnancy during the war than a pregnant woman in January,” she explained. “What we’re seeing is the real, obvious impact of war, deprivation, trauma on pregnancies, we’re seeing many more preterm, weak, sick babies.”

In January, an official from Care International told Jezebel that the miscarriage rate in Gaza has increased by 300% since the start of Israel’s attacks, according to tracking from their health care workers on the ground. In October, health care groups estimated there were 50,000 pregnant people in Gaza. In a previous conversation with Jezebel, Ingram recounted the story of a pregnant woman who was buried beneath rubble when an Israeli airstrike hit her home, causing her to lose her pregnancy. According to Ingram, the woman said “she felt it was best ‘a baby isn’t born into this nightmare.’”

And in written testimony that Care International shared with Jezebel in February, one mother in Gaza described sheltering in “a small house” with 25 people, and said there are no sanitary products for women in overcrowded shelters, so “diseases and epidemics are spreading everywhere.” The woman also wrote that “some of my friends had their babies without anesthesia, even when having caesareans.” The Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association previously shared with Jezebel that they’ve heard of cases of displaced pregnant women forced to search on foot for a safe place to give birth while having contractions, as well as women dismissed from the hospital immediately after c-sections with nowhere sanitary to go.

“These are not normal, healthy, joyful conditions to be pregnant or give birth, to say the least,” Ingram said. As UNICEF scrambles to distribute incubators for preterm babies, midwifery and birthing kits, and other critical medical supplies, Ingram emphasized the urgency of what she’s seeing and the dire need for a ceasefire. “Picture how challenging it is, surviving a pregnancy, trying to keep yourself and your new baby alive, and under constant bombardment and bullets. So many women, so many babies are dying preventable deaths.”

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