Health brief: Directing EU’s aid to Ukraine

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When Russia launched its large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the international scene drastically changed, and Ukraine was pushed into a new humanitarian crisis.

As around 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries in the first six days of the war, the EU is trying to check on those who stayed in Ukraine, which was already fighting a polio outbreak and COVID-19.

In a press release on the first day of the war, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that “health workers, hospitals and other facilities must never be targets and must be allowed to continue to serve the health needs of communities.”

It was added that protecting civilians is an obligation under international humanitarian law.

But later that day, at least one hospital was bombed in the Donetsk region. The World Medical Association (WMA) and the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) reacted by highlighting that medical facilities must not be military targets and doctors and healthcare workers must not be prevented from performing their professional duties. 

As we enter the seventh day of the war with the news about destroyed hospitals in the cities of Kharkiv and Zhytomyr, healthcare moving underground, and Ukraine running out of medical supplies, Russia does not appear to have responded to the calls to protect civilians and healthcare.

“Aerial and ground attacks on towns and cities have damaged critical civilian infrastructure, including hundreds of homes, schools, and health facilities,” said Martin Griffiths, UN’s under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on Tuesday (2 March) 

Destroyed bridges and roads also cut people off from critical supplies, food and medicine. 

On Tuesday (2 March), Eric Liang Feigl-Ding, an American public health scientist, tweeted that “Russian attacks cut off access to the main warehouse for Novo Nordisk drugs in Ukraine, a source says”.

He added that “all of Novo Nordisk’s insulin in Ukraine is stored there. Unless warehouse access is restored, pharmacies only have a couple of days of insulin left.”

And this is not only about insulin. On Sunday (27 February), the WHO released a statement regarding a dangerously low medical oxygen supply in Ukraine due to the crisis, highlighting that “trucks are unable to transport oxygen supplies from plants to hospitals across the country, including the capital Kyiv.”

Consequently, most hospitals could exhaust their oxygen reserves within the next 24 hours, while some have already run out. 

Coordinating logistics

In the context of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine, the EU is uniting not only for a historical decision – to unblock some €500 million for member states to buy arms for Ukraine’s armed forces – but also for giving humanitarian aid, all directed by the Commission. 

A spokesperson told EURACTIV that the Commission is channelling aid to Ukraine from 25 countries through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism

“[This] includes eight million medical care items such as first aid kits, protective clothing, disinfectants as well as tents, firefighting equipment, power generators and water pumps which have been offered to Ukraine,” the Commission’s spokesman said. 

EU’s Crisis and Humanitarian aid chief Janez Lenarčič reported Tuesday that the first aid truck had reached Kyiv and more were on their way. 

But as Europe is willing to help, the delivery is dangerous. On Monday, Lithuania’s health minister Arūnas Dulkys said that “everyone has big and wide hearts, but the logistical path is narrow and dangerous”.

This was confirmed to EURACTIV by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday (2 March). ICRC spokesperson said that bringing healthcare aid material “will take time”.

“Lots of our truck drivers are blocked on the road at the moment, they simply can’t move because of the hostilities,” the spokesperson said. It was added that the top priorities to deliver are medical supplies and shelter materials.

“We are in touch with hospitals and health authorities when we can, but communications are also affected. We are nonetheless sending in weapon wounded kits and other medical supplies that we judge to be a priority at the moment,” the spokesperson concluded.

Sending healthcare workers

Lithuania is sending not only aid but also building healthcare teams. The country already closed registration on Tuesday as nearly 300 healthcare workers expressed their wish to go on a mission in Ukraine. 

“Different specialists are applying, but we are coordinating with Ukrainians, who send us a clear message: they need paramedics, nurses, anesthesiologists, rheumatologists. ” Based on that, the ministry is forming two teams of 12 people each. 

Dulkys added that based on the information from Ukrainians, “in each Ukrainian area there is a lack of 6-8 healthcare specialists”. 

The Commission’s spokesperson said that so far Ukraine has not requested medical teams via the mechanism, only medical items which have been supplied in large quantities.”

The Commission has announced €90 million in initial support for EU’s humanitarian partners on the ground, which was topped on Tuesday by at least €500 million from the EU budget for humanitarian aid.

And on Tuesday, the United Nations launched two plans to help people across Ukraine and beyond – including funds to boost medicine and health supplies, safe drinking water, shelter and protection, calling for appeals of $1.7 billion. At the end of the launch event, Griffiths announced that $1.5 billion had been pledged for the humanitarian appeals.

Fortunately, the machine of international humanitarian aid has geared up and started distributing aid.

by Giedre Peseckyte

Subscribe to EURACTIV’s Health Brief, where you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering health from across Europe. The Health Brief is brought to you by EURACTIV’s Health Team Giedrė Peseckytė, Clara Bauer-Babef, Amalie Holmgaard Mersh, Gerardo Fortuna, and Natasha Foote.

Short News

EU news

Cohesion for health. A new own-initiative report in the European Parliament suggests that we should better use the cohesion policy funds to reduce health inequalities to combat health inequalities across the continent.

Reinforcement of the EMA. The regulation reinforcing the European Medicine Agency’s (EMA) role in crisis preparedness and management of medicinal products and medical devices became applicable as of Tuesday (1 March). The extended mandate was decided to better prepare for future pandemics.

COVID

Novavax delivers to the EU. US biotech firm Novavax started shipping their Novaxovid COVID-19 vaccines to EU member states on Wednesday (23 February). The first protein-based vaccine available in Europe is expected to raise vaccination rates, but its efficiency against omicron is yet to be determined.

Post-COVID-19 challenges. A high-level group on post-COVID economic and social challenges has published its report Tuesday (1 March). The report recommends actions in five areas, one of which is moving towards a Health Union by making investments in the resilience and preparedness of health systems.

Digital health 

French presidential candidates on digital health. The Health spokespersons of presidential candidates Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot, Valérie Pécresse, and soon-to-be-announced candidate Emmanuel Macron presented their programs for the April election regarding digital health at an event on Thursday (24 February).

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

Antimicrobials for humans. Tuesday (1 March), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) released new scientific advice about antimicrobials that should only be used for treating infections in humans. According to the European Commission, it paves the way for the upcoming adoption of legislation listing the antimicrobials, which will be reserved for humans.

Plasma

Plasma donation for gay men. The revision of the EU’s blood directive offers the chance to overhaul outdated restrictions that prevent those in same-sex relationships from becoming blood and plasma donors.

Essential plasma treatment. As an Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) patient, Frank Willersinn is dependent on a treatment with a plasma-derived medicine (PDMP) to ensure his body does not deteriorate. The European Commission is expected to launch an initiative that will streamline the evaluation and authorisation of medicines for rare diseases, hoping to help the development of products in areas of high unmet needs for patients.

Ukraine-Russia

Humanitarian aid. Monday (28 February), the European Commission announced an extra €90 million for emergency aid programmes in Ukraine. The aid will provide food, water, health, shelter and help cover basic needs. Coordination of material assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is also done by the EU with offers from 20 member states. This includes 8 million essential medical care items and civil protection support.

The Capitals

ZAGREB

Croatia to send weapons to Ukraine, provide healthcare to refugees. Croatia will send weapons worth €16.5 million to Ukraine and provide health care to refugees from the country and the necessary medical assistance to the wounded, Croatia’s defence and health ministers said on Monday, 28 February. By Zeljko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr

VIENNA

Vienna to provide €15 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The Austrian government will provide €15 million in aid, 10,000 helmets and fuel to assist the Ukrainian population as it suffers from the ongoing war waged by Russia, the government has said. By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de

PARIS

France pushes the abortion limit from 12 to 14 weeks. French lawmakers on Wednesday (23 February) adopted a bill extending the time limit for abortions from 12 to 14 weeks, with 135 votes in favour and 47 against. By Clara Bauer-Babef | EURACTIV.fr

Upcoming events

3 March – how to build recovery and resilience in the EU in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

3 March – launch of the WHO “European Obesity Report 2022”

4 March – launch of Declaration for National Action Plans on Obesity

4 March – World Obesity Day Europe 2022

10 March – launch of the European health report 2021 and COVID-19 update in the WHO European Region

17-18 March – Annual conference on EU law in the Pharmaceutical Sector 2022

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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