“The level of damage to the health system in Gaza is considerable and requires urgent support from partners and donors,” said the UN World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Director for Eastern Mediterranean, Ala Alwan.The visit comes two weeks after senior UN officials in the region said that weeks of intense fighting had left the medical services and facilities in the Gaza Strip “on the verge of collapse.”Dr. Alwan aimed to get a first-hand account of the humanitarian conditions in the area, to meet with local authorities and review the damage to health infrastructure and facilities. Since the conflict began on 13 June, WHO estimates that 15 out of area’s 32 hospitals have been damaged, in addition to 18 primary health clinics and 29 ambulances.In addition, at least five medical staff have been killed and many more injured, the UN agency said. “WHO staff in Gaza and Ramallah have been working jointly with the Palestinian health authorities in an integrated way in responding to the immediate and urgent needs to support and sustain emergency health services in Gaza throughout the crisis,” Dr. Alwan said. While the displacement numbers of people sheltering in schools and other facilities remains fluid, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that 209,522 people were sheltering in 88 UNRWA schools in the area. Dr. Alwan visited one school where more than 1000 people have taken refuge in extremely overcrowded conditions. “I am particularly worried about the risk of water-borne and communicable disease in such settings where overcrowding, poor hygiene and lack of access to clean drinking water predispose to disease outbreaks,” he warned. “These risks have to be addressed immediately.”UNRWA Director of Health, Akihiro Seita, who accompanied Dr. Alwan, stressed the health challenges: “While we do our best, we are deeply concerned about the health and hygiene situation in our very crowded shelters. Our efforts may be limited where the entire water, electricity and sewage systems are heavily damaged.”Palestinian health authorities are planning to refer more patients to hospitals outside of Gaza to access life-saving treatment as well as to reduce the case load in the hospitals to a more manageable level. There is a need to speed up approvals to allow these patients to be transported across border crossings.“Referral of patients outside of Gaza to receive specialized treatment will have to be facilitated at all levels,” urged Dr. Alwan.He added that there was an urgent need to provide mental health support for all patients including parents, children and especially displaced persons, most of whom do not have homes to come back to in Gaza.While in the area, Dr. Alwan and his team met with President Mahmoud Abbas, who thanked the UN agency for the $2.5 million worth of medical supplies and other support Gaza hospitals and clinics received during the conflict.