A member of the hostage team in Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “There is a deadly fungus in the tunnels with no treatment.”
“Hamas members there are now more immune to it but there is a high chance many of the hostages are sick and deteriorating due to this fungus,” the official said.
Dr Hagai Levine, head of the medical team for the hostage families forum, said testimonies of those released confirmed the fears of medical officials.
“We know several of the hostages were severely wounded on being taken hostage and we don’t know if they have been treated properly. Several of those coming back need long-term antibiotic treatment for infections which could even still be life threatening, worsened by the fungus in the tunnels,” he explained.
Fungus claimed life of Israeli soldier
It is believed that the fungus has already claimed the life of at least one Israeli soldier.
Last month, Ichilov Hospital confirmed that a soldier who was seriously injured while fighting in Gaza died of the fungal infection. The Israeli Defence Forces says it is investigating the matter.
So far, Israeli medical teams have been unable to treat the fungal infection nor identify what type of fungus is causing it.
The warning from Israel’s hostage team came as a report revealed that almost twice as many people are dying each year from fungal infections than previously thought.
A study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal, found that 3.75 million deaths can be traced back to fungal infections, accounting for around six per cent of all global deaths annually.
The revised global death toll is much higher than earlier calculations, which suggested fungal infections kill up to two million people each year.
Millions of different species of fungus exist across the planet, which humans regularly encounter in everyday life. The vast majority of people have immunity to these infections and do not develop disease.
But the poor condition that many of the hostages are believed to be in - many were seen being taken away by Hamas terrorists bearing serious, open wounds - as well as the conditions inside the poorly-ventilated tunnels, mean many may be at particular risk to fungal infection.
“When you have open wounds, you have a high risk of infections that could be life threatening,” said Dr Levine.
Hamas terrorists may have built resistance
Hamas terrorists, on the other hand, may have been able to build up resistance to infection by repeated exposure.
“Someone who is trained and used to these tunnels may be able to build an immunity,” he explained. “But it’s an environment that threatens the hostages’ lives.”
On top of the threat posed by fungal infection, a source inside the Israeli ministry of health warned that the hostages were also at increasing risk of execution.
While Hamas has claimed that several hostages have died as a result of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, “there are a few bodies of hostages brought home by Israel that were executed with multiple gunshots, like we saw on October 7 victims,” the source said.
“That’s not bombing - they are executing the hostages.”
The hostage team member said Israeli intelligence had also suggested that executions were becoming more frequent as Hamas loses control of more of Gaza.
“We don’t know numbers but we know that there are hostages being killed. For Hamas, they don’t care if they are dead or alive,” the source said.
34 hostages may have been executed
Israel now believes that as many as 34 of the hostages may have been summarily executed by their Hamas captors, a government source told the Telegraph.
On October 7, following the Hamas attacks, over 240 people, most of them civilians, were taken hostage.
The hostages, some of whom are elderly or children, remain key collateral for Hamas.
One Israeli intelligence source described the captives as “the iron dome for Hamas”, referring to the missile defence systems Israel has against aerial attacks.
Hamas’s leaders, the source said, “are surrounding themselves with the hostages as they know this makes the operation much more complex for Israel but at the same time, they need a ceasefire.”
Benjamin Netanyahu is coming under increasing pressure to secure the release of the remaining hostages.
The Israeli prime minister suffered an embarrassment this week when a member of his War Cabinet broke ranks and accused him of misleading Israelis by claiming “absolute victory” over Hamas was a realistic possibility.
Gadi Eisenkot, a former army chief whose son was killed in Gaza last month, also said the only way to bring the hostages home was through a cease-fire, refuting claims made by Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, that only military pressure on Hamas will secure their freedom.
Pressure for a new round of truce talks has permeated Israeli society.
‘Feeling that we are stuck’
“There is a feeling that we are stuck and it’s the government’s responsibility to find the solution that will bring them back home,” said Dr Levine.
“The same government that was on duty when the hostages were abducted should not leave them wounded in Gaza. It must do whatever they can to release them.”