WHO: Ukraine's health system 'teetering on the brink'

UN agency warn of threats that emergency medical teams face on the ground in Ukraine

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Ukraine’s health system is “teetering on the brink”, the World Health Organisation said, while attacks on medical facilities are forcing the UN body to reconsider deploying emergency teams over safety fears.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said health was now a target in hostilities and is “becoming part of the strategy and tactics of war”.

In 2022 alone, the WHO said it had verified 89 attacks on health globally – including 43 in Ukraine in the three weeks since Russia launched its invasion.

“We are working very hard with many partners to get emergency medical teams on the ground. But how can we put emergency medical teams on the ground if the very facilities that they may want to go on to support are going to be attacked, and going to be bombed, and going to suffer catastrophic damage?” Dr Ryan said.

“The health system in Ukraine is teetering on the brink, it is doing exceptionally well, but it needs to be supported, it needs to be shored up, it needs to be given the basic tools to save lives.

“Part of that is deploying teams to support that – but how can you do that in all conscience if the very infrastructure that those people will go in to support is being under direct attack?” he said.

The verified attacks in Ukraine, which have killed 12 people and injured 34, include 34 attacks on hospitals and other health facilities, seven on ambulances and 10 on health personnel, the WHO said.

In one of the most shocking instances, a maternity and children's hospital in the southern city of Mariupol was shelled last week, killing three people, including a child.

Dr Ryan highlighted that international humanitarian law requires those fighting not only to refrain from targeting health facilities, but to “specifically take measures to avoid attacking or inadvertently destroying” them.

“This issue is more important than bricks and mortar. This isn’t just about the destruction of buildings. This is about the destruction of hope,” Dr Ryan said.

“This is about taking away the very thing that gives people the reason to live – the fact that their families can be taken care of, that they can be cured if they’re sick, that they can be treated if they’re injured. This is the most basic of human rights, and it has been directly denied to people.

“And we are then in a position where we can't send assistance to those people because the very act of attacking those facilities, or not taking care to avoid those facilities, means we cannot send the appropriate help when needed.”

As well as the 43 attacks in Ukraine, the WHO has verified attacks in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan and Syria.

The 89 separate attacks have injured 53 people and killed 35, including health workers, the WHO said.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the WHO had managed to establish supply lines for medical aid to many cities in Ukraine, “but challenges with access remain”

“Attacks on health care not only endanger lives, they deprive people of urgently needed care and break already-strained health systems,” he said.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 1:34 PM