WHO is in Ukraine for the long haul
Statement by WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge
14 October 2022
In just ten days from now we will mark eight months of relentless war in Ukraine.
But this week, the bombings of Kyiv, Dnipro and other cities nationwide have refocused global attention to the survival of the civilian population of Ukraine – and the survival of the health system itself.
The escalation of the humanitarian emergency requires an escalation of the humanitarian response.
Let me clearly state: WHO is there to stay. To stay and support the Ministry of Health, under the leadership of Health Minister Dr Viktor Liashko. To stay and support our more than 150 health partners on the ground.
The immediate priority: Responding urgently to the damage done by the latest attacks on health – with the current total of WHO-confirmed attacks on health at 620 since the war began in February. We need to scale up our support to the rebuilding process.
In parallel, we have ongoing efforts to boost the capacity – and the morale – of the exhausted health and care workforce. So far, WHO has helped train about 11,000 healthcare workers on a range of issues including trauma surgery, mass casualties, chemical exposure, epidemiology and laboratory diagnostics.
This complements ongoing efforts to bring in lifesaving medical supplies – over 1,300 metric tons so far. Supplies such as power generators for healthcare facilities; oxygen; ambulances; surgical kits; medicines to treat non-communicable diseases; and vaccines, both for routine immunization and COVID-19.
The second priority are the immediate health needs of people in the newly accessible areas back under Ukrainian control. We must find ways to respond to the magnitude of physical and mental suffering endured by these populations. Also, for months now, we have been urgently requesting humanitarian access to occupied areas like Mariupol and Donbas, so that WHO and partners can assess needs and provide support.
The third priority is anticipating and preparing for the significant challenges that winter will bring. Too many people in Ukraine are living precariously, moving from location to location, living in sub-standard structures or without access to heating. This can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, pneumonia, stroke and heart attack.
The destruction of houses and lack of access to fuel or electricity due to damaged infrastructure could become a matter of life or death if people are unable to heat their homes. According to the Government of Ukraine, over 800,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed in the country since the start of the war, and thousands of people are now living either in collective centres or damaged buildings, without the protection they need against the harsh cold season.
The coming brutal winter could prove particularly dangerous for vulnerable people – including the elderly, patients with chronic conditions, and maternal and neonatal services, especially given the current reality of low COVID-19 and other vaccines coverage. Indeed, we have seen COVID cases rise sharply in recent weeks, as they have elsewhere in the WHO European Region. We must prepare for an increased burden of respiratory diseases this autumn and winter, as seasonal influenza co-circulates with SARS-CoV-2.
Wintertime challenges and the latest escalation in fighting could add to significant internal displacement, with an anticipated 2 to 3 million people on the move within Ukraine itself, as well as another exodus of refugees to surrounding countries.
Consequently, there will be an even greater strain on health services both in Ukraine and refugee-receiving countries.
Mental health issues will also likely be exacerbated. Earlier this week, on World Mental Health Day, we noted that almost 10 million people at the present time are potentially at risk of mental disorders such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder. This estimate was made before this week’s escalation of hostilities.
The fourth priority I’d like to emphasise is the crucial continuation – despite the raging war – of health care reform in Ukraine.
Before the war, the country had embarked on an ambitious health care reform process that had already begun showing strong results.
However, recent economic analyses from the World Bank suggest the war could push 60 percent of the population below the poverty line, and UNDP estimates put that figure as possibly even higher – making it more and more challenging for people to afford essential medical services. An urgent roadmap is needed to expand universal health coverage in the months and years ahead.
I would like to acknowledge here donor governments who make our work possible. WHO’s humanitarian ask, so far, has averaged to about US$ 10 million per month for our response in Ukraine. We need donor support to remain steady, if not increase, to enable, in turn, our support to Ukrainian health partners in the long term and for the health needs of refugees in surrounding countries.
We can expand on these and other issues when we take your questions – but let me conclude by reiterating the message I conveyed at the very beginning: WHO is in Ukraine for the long haul. The country and its people can count on our partnership and support, today and always.
Thank you very much.
Roy Wadia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bhanu Bhatnagar, email@example.com
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