WHO alarmed by attacks on Ukraine health system

GENEVA , Switzerland-- The World Health Organization said Wednesday that healthcare facilities and personnel globally were being attacked at an unprecedented rate -- in particular in the conflict in Ukraine.


"We've never seen globally... this rate of attacks on healthcare," the WHO's emergencies director Michael Ryan told a press conference.

"Health is becoming a target," he lamented. "It is becoming part of the strategy and tactics of war."

Attacks on healthcare have been rising around the world, with 89 registered globally since the start of the year -- but nowhere has the pace of attacks been faster than in war-ravaged Ukraine.

In just three weeks since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, there have been at least 43 attacks on healthcare in Ukraine, according to a WHO tally.

The verified attacks, 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, 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.

- 'Destruction of hope' -
"This crisis is reaching a point where the health system in Ukraine is teetering on the brink," Ryan said.

He asked how the WHO could, in good conscience, send in emergency medical teams if their destination health facilities "are going to be attacked, and going to be bombed and going to suffer catastrophic damage?"

He stressed 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.

Destroying health facilities, he warned, "is about the destruction of hope" and the denial of basic human rights.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus agreed.

"Attacks on healthcare not only endanger lives, they deprive people of urgently-needed care and break already-strained health systems," he told reporters.

WHO said 300 health facilities are along the conflict front lines in Ukraine, or in areas now under Russian control.

Another 600 facilities are within 10 kilometres of the conflict frontline.

- 'Catastrophic' -
Tedros said the UN health agency had managed to establish supply lines for medical aid to many cities in Ukraine, "but challenges with access remain."

It was also coordinating the deployment of 20 emergency medical teams from a range of countries, pending a formal request from the Ukraine health ministry, he said.

Tedros lamented though that WHO has so far received just $8 million of the $57.5 million requested to provide for its response to the crisis.

"Huge amounts of money are being spent on weapons. We ask donors to invest in ensuring that civilians in Ukraine and refugees receive the care they need," he said.

The WHO chief also stressed that Ukraine was not the only crisis it is responding to, pointing to particularly dire situations in Yemen, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Tedros, who is from Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray region, said the situation there especially was "catastrophic".

He decried the "forgotten crisis", where some six million people there had been "under blockade by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces for almost 500 days, sealed off from the outside world".

"Yes, I am from Tigray, and this crisis affects me, my family and my friends very personally," he acknowledged.

"But as the director-general of WHO, I have a duty to protect and promote health wherever it is under threat, and there is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray."