Response to the terrorist attack on Israel and the resulting Israel-Gaza conflict: A call for compassion and public health priorities

Oct. 31, 2023
Israel / Gaza map

Recently, Hamas executed a terrorist assault on Israeli civilians, involving indiscriminate killing and kidnapping, actions we unequivocally denounce. The ramifications of this attack will be both immediate and enduring, with devastating consequences for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Since these attacks, thousands of Israelis, and Palestinians, including many women and children, have been killed or injured, and we fear that this number will continue to rise. This ongoing conflict has placed an unimaginable burden on innocent lives.

At the O'Brien Institute for Public Health, our primary concern is the health and well-being of all individuals affected by this crisis. We urgently call on the international community to prioritize reducing human suffering and protecting all innocent people affected by this conflict.

The long-term public health consequences of the terrorist attack and resulting armed conflict are deeply troubling. In addition to the direct physical trauma due to war, the mental health of individuals living in affected regions will be profoundly impacted, with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and enduring emotional scars that may last for generations.

How terrorist attacks and armed conflict can impact public health

Terrorist attacks: Research reveals a significantly higher prevalence of PTSD among individuals directly and indirectly exposed to terrorist attacks, with direct survivors experiencing rates as high as 30 per cent. Terrorism-related PTSD can result in higher rates of anxiety disorders and Major Depressive Disorder, especially among those who have suffered physical injuries or lost loved ones in such events. Family separations in these circumstances cause immense psychological distress with enduring harm.

Armed conflict: Armed conflicts wield dual, immediate, and enduring public health repercussions. The violence of war results in casualties, from fatalities to injuries, while the traumatic ordeal of conflict and limited access to proper healthcare give rise to a range of health issues. Beyond battlefield casualties, conflicts induce health challenges through population displacement, the disruption of healthcare and social services, and an increased vulnerability to disease transmission.

Displaced people: Displaced people are among the most vulnerable and neglected members of many societies. Research conducted within resettled refugee communities reveals that refugees experience elevated rates of mental disorders, notably depression, PTSD, and other anxiety-related conditions, surpassing the prevalence typically observed in non-war affected populations.

Multiple longitudinal studies conducted among recently resettled refugees have demonstrated that post-traumatic stress reactions may endure and possibly intensify over time, particularly in the immediate aftermath of war trauma and the resettlement process.

Urgent appeal for humanitarian access, protection, and peace

In the midst of this prolonged crisis, it is imperative to ensure the safety and protection of medical professionals, healthcare facilities, and infrastructure. The establishment of humanitarian corridors, as well as the safe passage and protection of essential supplies and aid, is of utmost importance.

Doctors Without Borders, and other humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza to provide emergency care, say the suspension of essential supplies, such as water, food, electricity, medical supplies and fuel for hospital generators are severely hindering humanitarian operations. We echo their sentiments, and calls from the World Health Organization, that medical facilities and healthcare workers must be protected under international law. We urge all parties involved to establish secure corridors for humanitarian workers to deliver crucial food, water, and aid and also ensure the safety of NGO and healthcare staff operating in the area.

In light of the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza, we urgently appeal for an immediate cessation of indiscriminate bombings in this besieged region. Unlike many other conflict-affected civilian populations, the people of Palestine face a unique predicament – they cannot escape the turmoil surrounding them, leaving them highly vulnerable to the ravages of war. At the very least, we must advocate for an immediate ceasefire, safeguarding the lives of Palestinian civilians, facilitating humanitarian corridors for aid delivery, and enabling civilians to find refuge from the ongoing violence.

We implore all parties to prioritize the preservation of life, the protection of civilians, the release of innocent Israeli hostages, and the pursuit of a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Only through dialogue, compassion, and cooperation can we hope to mitigate the public health consequences and work toward a more stable future for all those impacted by this ongoing crisis.

Our thoughts and hearts go out to the people enduring the devastating impacts of this conflict, and we stand ready to support any initiatives that promote public health and well-being in these challenging times.

Read the University of Calgary statement and access resources for students and staff who are impacted by the conflict here.


Refugee Health YYC:

Dr. Annalee Coakley, MD, MD, CCFP, DTM&H

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, MD, MPH, FRCPC

O’Brien Institute:

Dr. Kirsten Fiest, PhD, Scientific Director

Dr. Jamie Day, PhD, Administrative Director

Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, Associate Scientific Director, population health