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War on Ukraine Sparks Healthcare and Disease Crises

The war on Ukraine is expected to drive COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, meaning health organizations and neighboring countries should prepare to assist in the impending health crises.

As Russia continues waging war on Ukraine, people are forced to shelter in compact spaces with limited airflow. As a result, infections like COVID-19 are expected to spike, positioning Ukraine for a health crisis as they simultaneously defend against invasion.

“Viruses and bacteria are happy to exploit those situations where human beings are put under pressure,” Máire Connolly, a global health professor at the National University of Ireland Galway, told The Washington Post. She referenced overcrowding and a lack of food, water, and sanitation as factors driving the “double crisis” of war and disease.

With COVID-19 testing, vaccination, and treatment interrupted by the attacks, Ukraine will “without a doubt” see a rise in cases, said the World Health Organization (WHO). Before the war began, approximately 35% of the Ukrainian population was vaccinated against COVID-19.

Earlier this week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, MD, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) gave a statement on how the organization is supporting Ukraine. Ghebreyesus said the WHO has so far delivered 81 metric tons of supplies to Ukraine and is working to establish a supply pipeline for the country’s health facilities.

As of March 8, the director-general said, “We delivered five metric tons of medical supplies to Kyiv to support surgical care for 150 trauma patients, and other supplies to manage a range of health conditions for 45000 people for a month.” He added that more supplies were delivered on the following day, March 9, including 400 cubic meters of supplies transported from WHO’s hub in Dubai.

Still, Ukrainian hospitals are running out of supplies, and healthcare workers have their own safety to consider. The WHO has now verified 18 attacks against health workers, health facilities, and ambulances.

“Sending supplies to hospitals is great but those hospitals need power, they need clean water, they need engineers to be able to help, they need a fuel supply for generators,” said Michael Ryan, MD, the executive director of the WHO’s emergency program. “All of this infrastructure and engineering support is needed to keep your average hospital going in a normal situation. In the middle of a shooting war, it is almost impossible.”

The WHO promised to support neighboring countries as they provide healthcare to Ukrainian refugees. “Some of the main health challenges we see are hypothermia and frostbite, respiratory diseases, lack of treatment for cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and mental health issues.”

However, Ryan emphasized that accepting refugees would not drive infectious disease outbreaks in neighboring countries. “Europe has plenty of COVID as it stands,” he said, “The Ukrainian refugees are not going to change the dial on that.”

In addition to an impending COVID-19 outbreak, other significant Ukrainian health concerns include vaccine-derived polio, measles, and cholera.

“But the only real solution to this situation is peace,” Ghebreyesus said. “WHO continues to call on the Russian Federation to commit to a peaceful resolution to this crisis and to allow safe, unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance for those in need. A peaceful resolution is possible and that’s true in every war and humanitarian crisis to which WHO is responding around the world.”