Thousands of frozen Gaza IVF embryos destroyed by Israeli strike

Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

GAZA: When an Israeli shell struck Gaza’s largest fertility clinic in December, the explosion blasted the lids off five liquid nitrogen tanks stored 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 unfertilized 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 Israel’s six-and-a-half-month-old assault has had on the 2.3 million people of 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 said.

“My heart is divided into a million pieces,” he said.

Asked on Wednesday by Reuters about the incident, the Israeli military’s press desk said it was looking into the reports.

Three years of fertility treatment was a psychological roller coaster for Seba Jaafarawi. Jaafarawi, 32, and her husband could not get pregnant naturally and turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is widely available in Gaza.

At least nine clinics in Gaza performed IVF, where eggs are collected from a woman’s ovaries and fertilized by sperm in a lab. The fertilized 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 the Al Basma centre.

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

Two days before her first scheduled ultrasound scan, Hamas launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Her ultrasound never happened and Ghalayini closed his clinic, where an additional five of Jaafarawi’s embryos were stored.

After the war began, Ajjour managed to procure one delivery of liquid nitrogen, but Israel cut electricity and fuel to Gaza, and most suppliers closed.

Jaafarawi knew she should rest to keep her fragile pregnancy safe, but hazards were everywhere. But 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. Jaafarawi wanted to return to the war zone, retrieve her frozen embryos and attempt IVF again. But it was soon too late.

Ghalayini said 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 killed or taken away: 5,000 lives in one shell,” he said. 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.