Experts Gather to Discuss Public Health Crisis in Gaza

A panel discussion sponsored by the Office of the Dean of the School of Public Health brought experts together to discuss how we respond to the public health crisis in the Middle East.

On April 26th, Brown University’s School of Public Health convened a panel discussion to address the escalating public health crisis in Gaza. The event brought together a group of experts with frontline experience to explore both immediate measures to protect civilians, and strategies to mitigate long-term impacts on the region’s public health infrastructure.

“Having these conversations is only part of it,” said Dr. Francesca Beaudoin, emergency physician and academic dean at the School of Public Health, during her opening remarks. “How do we act now while also preparing for future moments that will challenge the global community? Our mission is to improve the health of all populations, particularly the most vulnerable.”

Stefanie Friedhoff, co-director of the Information Futures Lab and associate professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice at Brown, highlighted the gravity of the crisis. “In just over six months, we’ve seen over 30,000 deaths, massive displacement and a health care system in ruins,” she said. “Behind these stark statistics are individuals—each with their own story and history. Today, we focus on our shared humanity.”

The panel featured:

  • Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International and a former senior U.S. official experienced in leading international disaster responses, including in Sudan, Yemen and Kosovo. 
  • Danielle Poole Sc.D., MPH ’12, associate research scientist at the Yale Institute for Global Health, known for her rigorous evidence-based approach to humanitarian response. 
  • Dr. Mohammad Subeh, an emergency physician and ultrasound director at El Camino Hospital in California, with recent medical mission experience in Gaza.
  • Ella Watson-Stryker, a humanitarian worker with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), recognized as a Time Person of the Year for her Ebola response efforts.

Dr. Subeh, who recently returned from a volunteer medical mission to the city of Rafah, described harrowing experiences performing surgeries in makeshift hospitals built from shipping containers. “Surprisingly, 65% of my patients were children. Time and again I heard, ‘I was playing outside and a drone came above my head and shot me,’ or, ‘We were gathering firewood and a drone came and shot us.’”

Subeh explained that the field hospital was ill-equipped, with just one tourniquet for about 1,000 new patients each day suffering from severe trauma. They lacked basic supplies such as rubbing alcohol, tylenol and ibuprofen, and essential resources like X-ray machines, ventilators and anesthesia.

A recurring topic during the discussion was the number of deaths of humanitarians in Gaza, making the conflict the deadliest ever recorded for aid workers globally, according to the New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news organization founded by the United Nations in 1995. As reported by the USAID-funded AID Worker Security Database, at least 196 humanitarians have been killed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7.

Poole shared insights from her research indicating that medical facilities themselves have been dramatically impacted. “Our studies have shown that attacks on medical facilities are increasingly common in modern conflicts. We began documenting this in Ukraine and continued in Gaza, finding that 9% of medical facilities in Gaza were damaged within the first month of the conflict,” she said. “This is surprising because 9% of both medical and all other buildings sustained damage - despite the special protection of medical buildings by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Our ongoing analyses show that medical buildings in Gaza have four times the odds of damage relative to all other buildings nearly four months into the conflict.”

Watson-Stryker provided some context to the current health crisis in Gaza. “As public health professionals, we have to understand what was going on in Gaza before, which was under a blockade for 16 years before Oct 7,” she said. “In 2018, MSF had to scale up operations significantly due to the high number of lower limb injuries. We encountered severe restrictions, including bans on artificial limbs, crutches and wheelchairs.”

Konyndyk, speaking from his extensive experience in international disaster response, emphasized the severity of the threat of famine.“I wouldn't use the word ‘impending’ to describe the famine in Gaza—it’s already underway.” Declarations of famine are typically retroactive, acknowledging conditions that have been present for some time, he explained. “Since December, the entire territory has been food deficient. The basic humanitarian math is clear: cut off food and water, destroy the health system, and famine spreads inexorably.”

Konyndyk concluded by outlining what is needed for a comprehensive famine response plan. “Parties to conflict have a responsibility to facilitate humanitarian action in areas where they are fighting and areas under their control. It’s not a discretionary thing; it’s mandatory under IHL,” he said. He notes that Refugees International has called for the unconditional release of all hostages by Hamas and for IHL compliance by the Israeli government. “Both sides have an obligation to follow IHL. Both sides are violating IHL right now and it is very hard to see a way out of this to save the lives of civilian Palestinines in Gaza, without both sides adhering to their IHL obligations.”