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UN agencies warn of 'explosion' in Gaza child deaths

Gaza children are battling rampant malnutrition and disease, according to UN agencies
— Geneva (AFP)

An alarming lack of food, surging malnutrition and the rampant spread of disease could spark an explosion in child deaths in Gaza, the United Nations warned Monday.

Twenty weeks into Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, UN agencies warned that food and safe water had become "incredibly scarce" in the Palestinian territory, adding that virtually all young children had infectious illnesses.

"The Gaza Strip is poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths which would compound the already unbearable level of child deaths in Gaza," said Ted Chaiban, deputy head of humanitarian action at the UN children's agency UNICEF.

At least 90 percent of children under five in Gaza are affected by one or more infectious diseases, according to a joint assessment by the UN agencies for children, food and health.

Seventy percent had had diarrhoea in the two weeks prior to the assessment, marking a 23-fold increase compared to the 2022 baseline.

"Hunger and disease are a deadly combination," World Health Organization emergencies director Mike Ryan said in a statement.

"Hungry, weakened and deeply traumatised children are more likely to get sick, and children who are sick, especially with diarrhoea, cannot absorb nutrients well," he said.

"It's dangerous, and tragic, and happening before our eyes."

Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed more than 29,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Since the start of the war, Gaza has been plunged into a nutrition crisis, with outside aid severely restricted.

The UN assessment indicated that more than 15 percent of children under the age of two in northern Gaza -- one in six -- were acutely malnourished, while three percent were suffering from life-threatening severe wasting.

"As the data were collected in January, the situation is likely to be even graver today," the UN agencies warned.

In southern Gaza, five percent of children under two were acutely malnourished, according to the assessment.

Before the war, only 0.8 percent of children under five in Gaza were considered acutely malnourished, the UN agencies pointed out.

"Such a decline in a population’s nutritional status in three months is unprecedented globally," they said.