As most humanitarian corridors are closed, a European non-profit health organisation is giving online training to doctors in Ukraine to help them face the wave of casualties from the conflict.
At the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian doctors told Professor Maurizio Cecconi, president of the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM), that they needed medical supplies, open humanitarian corridors and digital training.
However, since there is no safe access to corridors, it is almost impossible to send drugs, medical supplies and devices or to transfer patients in intensive care units (ICUs) from Ukraine to neighbouring countries.
“This is the biggest problem. We would like to send more help but the humanitarian corridors are blocked, so it is not easy”, Cecconi told EURACTIV.
On Friday (1 April), a humanitarian corridor was opened in the city of Mariupol, allowing 3,000 people to leave the city. But it remains an exception.
For safety reasons, NGOs and the Ukrainian army have not been able to use most of the humanitarian corridors. On Monday night, the International Committee of the Red Cross was released after being held by police in a Russian-controlled area during the day. Other existing humanitarian corridors lead to only Russia or Belarus.
In order to help healthcare professionals still working in Ukrainian hospitals, the ESICM has set up online training to teach intensive care.
Since the war began, the ESICM has organised one training per week which can be followed for free, aimed not only at intensive care experts but also at front-line workers helping ICU teams, such as cardiologists.
Many health workers from other services joined ICUs to support the teams, but they do not always have the skills to take care of the patients who are in urgent need. During a virtual marathon organised last week, the association focused on how to take care of a patient with injuries caused by chemical products or a blast.
“We are doing tailored training for them because ICU doctors are very busy and don’t have time to train others”, Cecconi explained. In the first weeks of the conflict, about 200 ICU workers attended the online training.
Another session was dedicated to hypothermia, a common problem Ukrainian doctors are presented with as people spend more time outside in the cold weather.
“It is very important to know how to treat those patients and how to warm them”, ESICM’s president told EURACTIV.
“It’s not only about the emergency of the war”
If humanitarian corridors were open, medical supplies, devices and drugs could be sent, as well as patients transferred outside of Ukraine to receive urgent healthcare.
While there are some patients from Ukraine in ICUs in Europe, it is a tiny minority and there are no official figures at the moment.
“It’s against the Geneva convention: humanitarian corridors should be protected. It is unacceptable that the humanitarian corridors are not open. We should really condemn it”, Cecconi said.
“It is not only about the emergency of the war, but some patients with cancers need an operation and maybe they need to be in ICUs after the operation.”
Refugees travelling with chronic diseases may not have access to their treatments for a few days. “We may see diseases that we did not see before just due to the fact that you are stopping a treatment”, warned Cecconi, giving the example of a patient suffering from diabetes not taking insulin: “this is an emergency that sometimes we have to check in intensive care”.
Another danger is that travelling groups are more exposed to severe infections due to the lack of water and food, low temperatures and poor sanitary conditions. “The fact that you move in poor conditions exposes you more to get infections, and not only COVID”, Cecconi said.
“In bomb shelters, people breathe in fungal spores and if they have chronic illnesses, these often worsen. Sometimes they arrive with prolonged illnesses, such as pneumonia, kidney infections and severe allergic reactions”, a specialist in infectious diseases currently working in Ukraine told the World Health Organisation.
Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, more than 4.2 million people have fled the country. This has led to two separate healthcare crises, Cecconi said. “One is inside Ukraine and the other is this moving crisis of the refugees”.
“We have to be ready for that in Europe and this is the reason why with the society we are now investing heavily in teaching and training”, he continued.
10,000 beds for the refugees in European hospitals
During a webinar organised by the European Commission, the ESICM emphasised that as soon as the corridors open, the sickest patients must be prioritised.
“We built a strong collaboration during [the COVID-19 pandemic] with DG SANTE at the European Commission and the WHO”, Cecconi said.
On March 8, the Commission announced that 10,000 beds had been made available in hospitals in Europe to welcome Ukrainian refugees who required care.
“There are thousands of people fleeing from Ukraine that require urgent treatment and care. This includes casualties from the conflict, and those needing continuity of care, such as cancer patients”, said Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides.
Almost 150 hospitals are completely destroyed, including children’s hospitals, Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Omelchenko told the press on March 21.
“They have operated in some moments without electricity. They were using their phones during an operation”, Cecconi said. “We are learning from them because they are facing a very difficult situation, it is different from anything we’ve ever seen in Europe”, he concluded.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]