Health Systems “Shaken” By Ukraine War Are At Risk Headed To Winter

Ukrainian war
COVID-19 patient in severe state in Chernivtsi, southwestern Ukraine. As the SARS-CoV2 pandemic wanes, health services must deal with a health emergency – created solely by human forces.

Six months into the Ukraine war, the World Health Organization warns that the nation’s battered but “still-resilient” health system is facing “severe challenges and shortages in many areas” that must be dealt with as the nation prepares for a challenging winter.

WHO officials marked the half-year point in the war, which coincided with Ukraine’s Independence Day, with a somber reflection on the state of the nation’s life-saving health system.

The UN healthy agency says Ukraine has a “badly affected but still-resilient health system” even as attacks on it continue.

Since the war began with Russia’s invasion on February 24, WHO says it has verified 473 attacks carried out on health systems, including facilities and personnel, resulting in at least 98 deaths and 134 injuries.

In May, the World Health Assembly approved a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by 88 votes to 12 – but the 53 abstentions reflected the discomfort of many member states with a debate that polarized the global health body.

Most African nations abstained, as did many Middle Eastern nations, India and Pakistan.

Most of Europe, the United States, Oceania and many Latin American countries supported the Ukrainian-backed resolution, which condemns “in the strongest terms, Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities.”

Empty hospital beds line the hallways of the Kyiv Regional Perinatal Center, Ukraine, on 7 March 2022. As hospitals are disrupted or destroyed, online healthcare services can mitigate gaps.

Health System “Shaken” by Ukraine War, But Not “Collapsed”

WHO says it is supporting Ukraine’s Ministry of Health in the Ukraine war by helping to restore disrupted services, displaced health workers and destroyed infrastructure.

It also helped the ministry and partners deliver more than 1300 metric tons of medical supplies, WHO says, including power generators, ambulances and oxygen supplies for medical facilities; supplies for trauma and emergency surgeries; and medicines to help treat noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

“Six months of war have had a devastating impact on the health and lives of Ukraine’s people, but despite many challenges the health system has managed to survive and deliver care where and when it is needed most,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Although shaken, the health system has not collapsed,” he said. “But no system can deliver optimum health to its people under the stress of war, which is why we continue to call on the Russian Federation to end this war.”

Ukraine War’s “Horror” Demands Mental Health Response

Dr Hans Henri Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said attacks on health care violate international humanitarian law and are “unconscionable” because they kill and maim civilians and health-care providers, and severely hinder or prevent the delivery of health care services to those who need it most.

“Amid the horror of war,” he said, “we continue to witness the heroic efforts of health providers – including the many I’ve been privileged to meet in person myself – who are such a credit to their profession despite their own personal suffering .”

WHO also has helped train more than 9000 health care workers. Areas of focus included trauma surgery, mass casualties, chemical exposure, epidemiology and laboratory diagnostics.

But mental health, including stress management for health care workers and the public, is a priority in the Ukraine war.

“WHO is stepping up its efforts with the Ministry of Health to ensure that the health workforce is prepared with the necessary skills to respond to mounting needs as winter approaches,” said Dr. Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine.

“We’re already seeing severe challenges and shortages in many areas, with rising inequalities in access to health and other essentials, impacting, as always, the most vulnerable – women, children and the elderly,” said Habicht.

“Even as we look to a time when peace is restored,” he said, “we must focus on the here and now – the next six months could test Ukraine’s health system as never before.”

A destroyed tank is abandoned on the road to Bucha, Ukraine.

Image Credits: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons, UNICEF/Oleksandr Ratushniak, Marco Frattini/World Food Program.

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