Gaza Infant Mortality Rate Increases for First Time in 50 Years

Infant mortality rate rises in Gaza
A sick Palestinian baby lies at the European hospital in the Gaza Strip December 2, 2007. The rate of neonatal mortalitythe number of babies that die before four weeks old, has also gone up significantly in Gaza in the last few years. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The results of an "alarming" UN study shows that the infant mortality rate in the Gaza Strip has risen for the first time in half a century.

The study, conducted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), found that the number of babies dying before the age of one has consistently fallen in the past five decades in Gaza, from 127 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 20.2 in 2008. Yet at the last count, in 2013, it had risen to 22.4 per 1,000 live births.

The rate of neonatal mortality—the number of babies that die before four weeks old, has also gone up significantly in Gaza, from 12 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 20.3 in 2013.

The imposition of the blockade and a series of armed conflicts in the last 10 years may have contributed to the rise, according to the study. Israel imposed the blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007, after the Islamist militant group Hamas captured an Israeli soldier.

Since the blockade of Gaza was brought into force in 2007, Israeli-controlled crossings between Gaza and Israel have remained closed. According to a 2010 report by Amnesty International, the blockade "prohibits exports and restricts the entry of basic goods, including food and fuel...The blockade also often prevents people from receiving necessary, urgent medical care, and from pursuing their livelihoods." The Israeli authorities argue that the blockade is a response to rocket attacks from Palestinian armed groups.

"The socioeconomic condition in the Gaza Strip has deteriorated dramatically following imposition of a blockade by the Israeli government in 2007," the study says. "The blockade has impacted the health sector in Gaza, as hospitals continue to lack adequate physical infrastructure, drugs and supplies.

"In addition, armed conflicts during June 2006, December 2008 to January 2009, November 2012 and July and August 2014 have contributed to a health and healthcare environment that may have affected pregnancy outcomes and the health care provided to infants," the report continues.

Dr. Akihiro Seita, Director of UNRWA's health programme, told Newsweek it was difficult to find a direct link between his findings and the blockade, but added that the reversal is "alarming". "What seems clear is that a deterioration in health care in Gaza has had a major impact on the infant mortality rate" he said.

Seita says that such an increase is unprecedented in the Middle East. "Usually infant mortality rates do not reverse, so although this is not a statistically significant increase it is a very alarming trend. The decline in an infant mortality rate may slow down, but it rarely reverses." Seita added that he had only seen such reversals in other conflict areas, including Iraq in the 1990s.

The study points out the disparity in infant mortality levels between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. In 2013, the infant mortality rate was estimated at 3.5 per 1,000 live births in Israel, compared with 15.8 per 1,000 live births in the occupied Palestinian territory.

"Although they are neighbouring places that share a border, their social and economic structures are totally different, and because of the blockade the economy in Gaza is quite different," Seita remarks. "The infant mortality rate is not a reflection purely of health services, but more of a reflection on the entire life, society and economy of a region. We've found that if the economy of a region constantly grows, the infant mortality rate declines. It's very unfortunate that these two societies have such a disparity."

The UNRWA report highlights that the survey was conducted before last year's conflict in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, including over 550 children.

UNRWA will carry out another region-wide survey in 2018, but the aid agency has said that due to these latest results, it will conduct a Gaza-specific survey this year.