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Gaza's IVF embryos have been destroyed by an Israeli air strike, killing hopes and dreams

April 17, 2024 at 11:47 am

A view of totally destroyed Nasr Children’s Hospital due to intense Israeli attacks in Gaza City, Gaza on February 16, 2024 [Karam Hassan – Anadolu Agency]

When an Israeli shell struck Gaza’s largest fertility clinic in December, the explosion blasted the lids off five liquid nitrogen tanks in a corner of the embryology unit. As the ultra-cold liquid evaporated, the temperature inside the tanks rose, destroying more than 4,000 embryos plus 1,000 more specimens of sperm and unfertilised eggs stored at Gaza City’s Al-Basma IVF Centre.

The impact of that single explosion was far-reaching, an example of the unseen toll that Israel’s six-and-a-half-month-old assault has had on the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. The embryos in those tanks were the last hope for hundreds of Palestinian couples facing infertility.

“We know deeply what these 5,000 lives, or potential lives, meant for the parents, either for the future or for the past,” said Bahaeldeen Ghalayini, 73, the Cambridge-trained obstetrician and gynaecologist who established the clinic in 1997. At least half of the couples — those who can no longer produce sperm or eggs to make viable embryos — will not have another chance to get pregnant, he explained. “My heart is broken into a million pieces.”

Three years of fertility treatment were a psychological roller coaster for Seba Jaafarawi.

The retrieval of eggs from her ovaries was painful, the hormone injections had strong side-effects and the sadness when two attempted pregnancies failed seemed unbearable. Jaafarawi, 32, could not get pregnant naturally, so she and her husband turned to in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), which is widely available in Gaza.

Large families are common in the enclave, where nearly half the population is under 18 and the fertility rate is high at 3.38 births per woman, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. Britain’s fertility rate, by way of comparison, is 1.63 births per woman.

Despite Gaza’s poverty, couples facing infertility pursue IVF, some selling TVs and jewellery to pay the fees, said Ghalayini.

At least nine clinics in Gaza performed IVF, where eggs are collected from a woman’s ovaries and fertilised by sperm in a lab. The fertilised eggs, called embryos, are often frozen until the optimal time for transfer to a woman’s uterus. Most frozen embryos in Gaza were stored at Al-Basma IVF Centre.

Jaafarawi became pregnant in September, her first successful IVF attempt. “I did not even have time to celebrate the news,” she said.

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Two days before her first scheduled ultrasound scan, Hamas launched its cross-border incursion, and Israel launched its ongoing military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has since killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza health authorities, and wounded almost 75,000 others. Many more are still buried under the rubble of their homes.

Jaafarawi worried about how she would complete her pregnancy. “What would happen to me and what would happen to the ones inside my womb?” Her ultrasound never happened and Ghalayini closed his clinic, where an additional five of Jaafarawi’s embryos were stored.

As the Israeli attacks intensified, Mohammed Ajjour, Al-Basma’s chief embryologist, started to worry about liquid nitrogen levels in the five specimen tanks. Top ups were needed every month or so to keep the temperature below -180C in each tank, which operate independent of electricity supplies.

Ajjour managed to procure one delivery of liquid nitrogen after the Israeli offensive had started, but the occupation state cut electricity and fuel supplies, and most of the Palestinian suppliers closed. At the end of October, Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza and soldiers closed in on the streets around the IVF centre. It became too dangerous for Ajjour to check the tanks.

Jaafarawi knew she should rest to keep her fragile pregnancy safe, but hazards were everywhere: she climbed six flights of stairs to her apartment because the elevator stopped working; a bomb destroyed the building next door and blasted out windows in her flat; food and water became scarce. Instead of resting, she worried.

“I got very scared and there were signs that I would lose [the pregnancy],” she said. She bled a little after she and her husband left home and moved south to Khan Younis. The bleeding subsided, but her fear did not.

The couple crossed into Egypt on 12 November. Once in Cairo, her first ultrasound showed that she was still pregnant with twins and they were alive. However, after a few days, she experienced painful cramps, bleeding and a sudden shift in her belly. She made it to hospital, but the miscarriage had already begun.

“My screams and cries at the hospital still [echo] in my ears,” said Jaafarawi.

The pain of loss has not stopped. “Whatever you imagine or I tell you about how hard the IVF journey is, only those who have gone through it know what it’s really like.”

She wanted to return to the war zone, retrieve her frozen embryos and attempt IVF again. But it was soon too late.

Ghalayini pointed out that a single Israeli shell struck the corner of the centre, blowing up the ground floor embryology lab. He does not know if the attack specifically targeted the lab or not. “All these lives were taken away: 5,000 lives with one shell.”

In April, the embryology lab was still strewn with broken masonry, blown-up lab supplies and, amid the rubble, the liquid nitrogen tanks, according to a Reuters-commissioned journalist who visited the site. The lids were open and, still visible at the bottom of one of the tanks, a basket was filled with tiny colour-coded straws containing the ruined microscopic embryos.

Hopes and dreams, as well as lives, have been destroyed in Gaza.

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