WHO Responds to Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine

March 3, 2022 — The World Health Organization has called on senior officials involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine to provide access to deliver essential medical, surgical, and trauma supplies to help the Ukrainian people and refugees in neighboring countries.

On Wednesday, WHO officials predicted that shortages of oxygen, insulin, cancer treatments, and other essential supplies would become more acute in the coming weeks and months. A secure “corridor” needs to be created to bring these supplies into Ukraine, especially as pre-positioned goods placed in 23 hospitals across the country currently remain largely unavailable.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the situation. Many cities in Ukraine are isolated, as are their hospitals. At the same time, it is estimated that 65% of the population of Kyiv are fully vaccinated, but this figure varies significantly, up to 20% of the residents of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Add to that the roughly 87,000 people who have already fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, potentially spreading the coronavirus when they move or go into crowded places. The situation in and around Ukraine means coronavirus transmission could increase, WHO officials said during a media briefing.

“WHO is deeply concerned about the unfolding humanitarian emergency in Ukraine,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D.

The first batch of injury kits and other supplies is due to take off from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and land in Poland on March 3. The aircraft will carry 6 metric tons of trauma and emergency surgery supplies to meet the needs of 100,000 patients. , as well as enough medical supplies to help another 150,000 people.

In addition to the $5.2 million allocated so far from contingency funding, WHO plans to spend another $45 million in Ukraine and $12.5 million in neighboring countries to support refugees over the next 3 months.

Attacks on medical workers

“We are also deeply concerned about reports of attacks on medical facilities and healthcare workers,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We have received several unconfirmed reports of attacks on hospitals and health infrastructure, as well as one confirmed incident last week in which a hospital came under fire from heavy weapons, killing four people and injuring 10, including six medical workers.”.

“Over the past few days, my main discussions with [Ukrainian] Minister of Health, how to ensure the protection of healthcare workers… healthcare workers who have been treated for COVID in the past 2 years,” said Jarno Habicht, MD, Head of the WHO Country Office in Ukraine.

“Many of the people I spoke to yesterday are working from shelters or have repurposed their hospitals,” he said.

International law protects access to health care during the conflict, said Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The integrity and neutrality of health care, including healthcare workers, patients, supplies, transport and facilities, and the right to safe access to health care must be respected and protected.”

Support for the healthcare system in Ukraine

The WHO’s main goal now is to maintain and preserve the health system so that it can serve the people of Ukraine, said Michael Ryan, MD, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. “We will do everything in our power to make this happen.”

WHO was treating mass wounds and training surgeons in hospitals across Ukraine in the months leading up to the conflict.

“WHO is not going to Ukraine. We have always been in Ukraine,” Ryan said. “We have been working in Ukraine for many years, working with the government on the healthcare system.”

The WHO cannot support the health care system if it cannot deliver and distribute the supplies already in the country, he said.

“Right now, in the chaos of what’s going on out there, it’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved in the coming days,” Ryan said. “The tragedy that is unfolding for the people of Ukraine can be avoided this way, and this is not necessary.”

Don’t forget the people behind the numbers

Many WHO officials are accustomed to dealing with humanitarian crises during conflicts, Ryan said. “Some of us have been in this for a long time and have developed a very thick skin. But when you see nurses ventilating babies in the basements of hospitals, you know that even the toughest of us struggled to look at it.”

And adults in intensive care are hard to carry to the basement. “Many patients in the intensive care unit are being cared for by doctors and nurses while bombs are falling around them,” he said.

Throughout the conflict, it will be important to talk about more than just supplies, Ryan said. “These are human bodies and human bones that have been broken. People are dying, and the health service is unable to provide vital assistance. So something has to change.”

There is only one simple answer, said Bruce Aylward, MD, senior adviser to the director-general of WHO.

“What can we do about it? Number one: stop the war,” he said.

“The second thing you do when this is unfolding is you protect your healthcare system. You must protect the services. The third thing you are trying to do is vaccinate vulnerable people first, including your healthcare workers,” he said. .

Concerns about COVID-19 are growing

According to Adhanom Ghebreyesus, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases in Ukraine shortly before the conflict.

“There is likely to be significant undetected transmission combined with low vaccination coverage, which increases the risk of developing severe illness in a large number of people,” he said.

And this is not only anxiety within Ukraine.

“Every time you destroy such a society and get literally millions of people moving, infectious diseases will take advantage of that,” Ryan said.

Refugees are very vulnerable to infection because they don’t eat or sleep properly, and live together, he said.

This increases the risk of infection and the risk of spreading the infection.

“The easy option may be very different for someone who is in this situation,” Ryan said, adding that refugees should be offered proper vaccinations.

WHO is working to provide people in the region with antiviral drugs.

“This is probably one of the situations where available therapeutics can save lives more than in other situations,” Ryan said. “Over the past 48-72 hours, we have been prioritizing Ukraine for additional shipments of therapeutics for COVID-19, including the latest antivirals.”

not enough oxygen

The lack of oxygen will make it difficult to treat patients with COVID-19 and many other diseases. Part of the shortfall is due to the closure of three major oxygen plants in Ukraine.

In addition, “it’s hard to find drivers who are willing to drive and bring in oxygen from some of the plants that still have supplies,” Habicht said.

About 2,000 people in Ukraine rely on oxygen therapy.

“That’s 2,000 people who need oxygen to survive,” Ryan said. That number is likely to increase “because we have people with injuries, people who have had surgery, in addition to babies with pneumonia and women having difficulty giving birth.”

“And you need it when you need it,” he continued. “You can’t wait for oxygen until tomorrow. You can’t wait until next week. You can’t be queued for oxygen.”

Without enough oxygen or other vital supplies, people will die needlessly, Ryan said.

“In areas where there is a military offensive, and where hospitals are closed and where we do not have access, it is about electricity and medicines,” Habicht said.

Solving other health problems

WHO plans to help neighboring countries address key health concerns for refugees and internally displaced people, including mental health and psychological care, as well as treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes, HIV, and cancer.

Insulin, blood pressure medications, sexual and reproductive health, child and maternal health products, and medicines are also needed, Habicht said.

Refugees will also need access to primary health care, said Heather Papowitz, MD, a WHO emergency management specialist. Surveillance and vaccination against COVID-19, measles, and polio are of paramount importance, she said.

“But also paying attention to sanitation and water hygiene to prevent diarrheal diseases.” According to Papovits, everything that happens in Ukraine affects other countries.

“It’s just a real regional crisis.”

What does the future look like

In the future, Ryan said it will be important to move away from providing general supplies to those specifically dedicated to the wounded during the war. This will include equipment for major surgeries “and, unfortunately, equipment for amputations, bone grafting, and bone grafting.”

“I think it gives you a visual representation of what’s going on,” he said.

“If the military offensive continues, then the situation that we will see when we meet in a week, weeks, months, or two months will be much worse than we discussed today,” Habicht said.

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