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Amid violence and lack of critical aid, pregnant women in Gaza are at particular risk: UN

Humanitarian organizations and physicians said thousands of expectant families in Gaza and the West Bank are facing extreme challenges in accessing safe delivery services as the conflict between Israel and Hamas stretches towards a second week.

More than 120,000 people currently pregnant in Gaza, West Bank, organization says

A woman carries a small baby in her arms as she walks through a parking lot. A vehicle marked for the United Nations is in the background.

As often as she can, Rola Baker tries to speak with her family in Gaza through a shaky internet connection from her home in Moncton, N.B. Her two brothers, three sisters and their families have all evacuated their homes in the besieged territory and took refuge at the Al Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Adding to Baker's worry: Her nephew is recovering from open-heart surgery and her sister is six months pregnant.

"They said it might be safe [at the hospital]…. It's not safe at all," said Baker, who moved to Canada after growing up in Gaza.

"When I connect to my family, each time they say goodbye to me, [it's] like they might die anytime," she continued. "That's the situation there. It's horrible. It's horrific."

WATCH | Rola Baker speaks about her family in Gaza:

Canadian describes trying to reach pregnant sister in Gaza

2 days ago

Duration 0:41

Featured VideoRola Baker, who lives in Moncton, N.B., had several brothers and sisters in Gaza when Israel imposed its complete siege of the territory — including a sister who was six months pregnant when the violence escalated.

Baker's sister is one of thousands of people currently pregnant in Gaza and the West Bank as the violent conflict between Israel and Hamas stretches toward a second week.

Humanitarian organizations and midwives said expectant mothers are either unable or struggling to access help to delivery safely, as overwhelmed hospitals run low on medication, electricity and fresh water — supplies especially critical in the event of an obstetric emergency.

'Extreme challenges'

There were more than 120,000 pregnant people in Gaza and the West Bank as of Monday, according to the United Nations. Around 160 will give birth every day in Gaza as the fighting continues, with more than 8,120 in the West Bank due to deliver within the next month.

The UN said those mothers are facing "extreme challenges" accessing health care, which leads to increased health risks during pregnancy and postpartum.

Midwives say mothers in the area won't be able to get treatment for what's known as the "big five" contributors to stillbirths, newborn and maternal deaths: hemorrhage, infection, ruptured ectopic pregnancies and untreated pre-eclampsia and eclampsia.

"It's critical that every birthing person is attended to by a health-care or provider who's skilled in emergency obstetric and newborn care and who has access to those basic life-saving medications," said Alixandra Bacon, a registered midwife and co-leader of global and international health at the University of British Columbia.

"In all of those cases, you need not only a health-care provider, but you might need electricity, you need clean running water — and access to all of those things is been stripped away at this time."

A baby with a blue soother and black hair sleeps in a red stroller inside a humanitarian aid tent.

The International Federation of Midwives also noted women are also at an increased risk of sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases during times of war.

Gaza has been running short on food, water and medicine since Israel imposed a complete siege of the territory in retaliation for a deadly assault by the Hamas militant group on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Aid trucks have been unable to cross from Egypt into the enclave of Gaza to deliver relief.

Around 1,400 people in Israel were killed in the initial Hamas assault, making the attack the deadliest in state history. At least 3,800 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli strikes.

Civilians account for most of the dead on both sides.

Pregnant people killed in conflict

Expectant mothers have been killed in the conflict. Ala al-Kafarneh, 31, lost his pregnant wife when an airstrike hit the Gaza City building they'd been using as shelter after fleeing their home in Beit Hanoun. His father, brother, cousins and in-laws also died.

"We escaped from danger into death," Kafarneh said outside the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, his head cut and a plaster cast running from his shoulder to his wrist.

A grieving man sits on the concrete ground outside a hospital.

Midwives are among the health-care workers who have chosen to postpone evacuation and stay in Gaza, the federation said, putting themselves at risk to help mothers through pregnancy and delivery. Health-care facilities and workers trying to save civilian lives are supposed to be left untouched during wartime under international law, including the fourth Geneva Convention.

"More than ever, I would say that it's of critical importance that we are resourcing midwives at this time and that the international laws regarding respecting hospitals as safe zones and working centres and safe zones are upheld," said Bacon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk

Senior Writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a senior writer for CBC News based in Vancouver. Over nearly a decade, she has reported on subjects including criminal justice, civil litigation, natural disasters and climate change. You can send story tips to rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

With files from Reuters

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