WHO: We are seeing the worst case scenario in Ukraine

Oleh Smolin (23, R), who was injured from shelling during a Russian attack, looks out the window from his bed after hearing the sound of shelling nearby, at a hospital in Chuhuiv, outside Kharkiv, not far from the frontline, northeast Ukraine, 02 April 2022. [EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on Thursday (7 April) that people in Ukraine “are going to start dying from common causes”, due to the lack of access to medical care and humanitarian aid, adding that they are now preparing healthcare workers for treating chemical attacks.

“The worst-case scenario really is what we’re seeing now, which is the lack of access to health care and the trauma,” said Heather Papowitz, WHO’s incident manager in Ukraine during a press conference in Lviv.

She continued: “We’re already seeing people dying and getting injured from the war and with the lack of access to health care, people are going to start dying from common causes like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, while children – for measles, common things like pneumonia and diarrhoea”.

Diseases that, thanks to medical science, “are very simple to treat” are at risk of becoming deadly without proper access to sanitation and care. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, WHO has verified 91 attacks on healthcare, which can include healthcare workers, ambulances and hospital facilities. 

“It is taking away hope because hospitals and the health care facilities are the places where people go to be treated and healed,” said Jarno Habicht, WHO’s representative in Ukraine and head of the WHO Ukraine country office.

Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, elaborated on the myriad of ways the conflict has impacted healthcare in the country: “Routine immunisation coverage for polio and measles is below the threshold for population immunity, 50% of Ukraine’s pharmacies are presumed closed, 1,000 health facilities are in proximity to conflict areas or in changed areas of control and roughly 80,000 babies will be born over the next three months with insufficient pre and postnatal care available due to the war.”

Red Cross humanitarian aid cannot reach Ukrainian cities where hostilities continue

Reaching those in need remains the biggest challenge for the Ukrainian Red Cross, especially in frontline places like Mariupol, where dozens of attempts have failed to bring in humanitarian aid.

Ensuring aid remains challenging 

Of equal importance to ensuring access to healthcare is ensuring the safe delivery of humanitarian convoys, Habicht said. 

Kluge said that convoys of aid were able to be delivered to the encircled city of Sumy last week.

We have delivered over 185 tons of medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas in the country, reaching half a million people with materials to support trauma, surgery and primary health care,” he added. The majority of supplies went to the east and liberated areas around Kyiv.

A further 125 tons of essential items, such as assistive products like wheelchairs, other mobility aids and communication aids for the blind, are also on their way and will be distributed across Ukraine “soon”, he said.

Kluge emphasised that although he was glad that the WHO was able to deliver “life-saving supplies to many affected areas”, the task remains very difficult in some areas, especially in Mariupol and the broader regions of Donetsk or Luhansk.

European nonprofit provides Ukrainian doctors with online intensive care courses

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.

Preparing for all scenarios – including chemical attacks

While the situation is already critical, the WHO is underway in preparing and training healthcare workers for even worse scenarios.

“Given the uncertainties of the current situation, there are no assurances that the war will not get worse,” said Kluge. 

He continued: “WHO is considering all scenarios, and making contingencies for different situations that could afflict the people of Ukraine, from the continued treatment of mass casualties to chemical assaults”.

Papowitz highlighted that “Ukraine is an industrial country so there are chemical hazards throughout the country, and these can be affected by the war and can be hit by different assaults”.

To address possible threats, the WHO trained 1,500 health workers and partners over the last week, as well as providing guidelines and supplies. 

The issue of nuclear threats remains on the table and WHO is collaborating with the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, in Kluge’s words, “to be ready basically for any eventuality”.

He added that paying attention to mental health and psychosocial support is also essential, especially for youth.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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