WHO appeals for humanitarian corridor to Ukraine

Medical aid supplies from the Swiss Army for Swiss Humanitarian Aid are ready for transport at the Army Logistics Center Othmarsingen, on Wednesday, 2 March, 2022. (Keystone/Michael Buholzer)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has appealed for a “humanitarian corridor” to be opened to deliver emergency medical supplies to Ukraine, saying existing stocks in Kyiv were blocked by a tightening Russian siege around the city.

“The first shipment will arrive in Poland tomorrow, including six metric tonnes of supplies for trauma care and emergency surgery,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addressing a media briefing on Wednesday.

“There is an urgent need to establish a corridor to ensure humanitarian workers and supplies have safe and continuous access to reach people in need to support our response,” added Dr Tedros.

The call by the WHO came just hours before the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a resolution “that deplores in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and calling for the immediate withdrawal of its forces.

Bombings and airstrikes by Russian forces have intensified across towns and cities in Ukraine, with at least 752 civilian casualties, including 227 deaths, recorded by the UN, and thousands more civilians unable to receive medical care as the fighting cripples health services.

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO executive director of health emergencies, provided a grim list of some of the equipment in the shipment: “Sutures, skin graft equipment, equipment for doing major surgery and unfortunately equipment for doing amputations, for bone grafting, for bone wiring”.

“These are ordinary civilians being broken, and the health system is going to have to put them back together again and they need this very specialised equipment,” said Ryan.

WHO has a large stock of supplies in the country, concentrated in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, Ryan added.  But those stores, right now are “blocked” by the constant bombardments and tightening Russian blockade around the city, he stressed.

He appealed for  “humanitarian access, corridors, moments of peace – anything that can be done ... where we can move supplies, move patients."

High-flow oxygen needs also increasing. An estimated 2,000 Covid-19 patients alone remain in hospital and in need of high-flow oxygen, which WHO had warned earlier this week is in short supply.  But on top of that, there are now soaring needs for oxygen for war wounded, children exposed to cold and struck with pneumonia, and mothers and newborns birthed in desperate conditions.

“Oxygen is lifesaving, full stop. And when you need it you can’t wait until tomorrow,” Ryan said, warning that without a replenishment of supplies soon “people will die needlessly in the dark. They are dying needlessly to start with, but there is a secondary level of needlessness”.

“When you see nurses mechanically ventilating infants in basements of hospitals, even the toughest of us struggle to watch those heroes… taking care of those kids.”

In addition, Ryan stressed that it was critical to get insulin supplies to diabetics and other NCD treatments to chronically ill people. His comments  echoed the findings of a WHO report issued Tuesday on how refugees and migrants often miss out on chronic disease treatments that can make a difference between life and death.

WHO training in mass casualty management. Ryan also disclosed that the WHO had been conducting training in “mass casualty management and major surgical training” in hospitals all over Ukraine over the past few months.

When asked why the WHO never mentioned Russia in its statements, Ryan said that the WHO stood for peace and did not want to get involved in the politics of the conflict.

“Our primary purpose is to sustain and preserve the health system in Ukraine that may serve the people of Ukraine and we will do everything in our power to make that happen,” said Ryan.

Attacks on health facilities. Dr Tedros stressed that attacks on health facilities and health workers were a violation of international law, and said that the WHO was in the process of verifying several incidents.

The organisation confirmed a report last week in which a hospital came under heavy attack, killing four people and injuring 10, including six health workers. The Ukrainian army claimed yesterday that a hospital had also come under attack in Kharkiv after Russian forces landed in the city.

Read also: Ukraine: is targeting hospitals a war crime?

“The sanctity and neutrality of health care, including of health workers, patient supplies, transport and facilities, and the right to safe access to care, must be respected and protected,” Dr Tedros said.

Covid-19 in Ukraine. Dr Jarno Habicht, head of the WHO’s Ukraine Country Office, said that while there was a protocol in place to move goods from Poland to Ukraine, this was only possible where direct military offensives are not taking place.

“So there is certain access, but as the situation evolves, that access is decreasing and the challenge is that where the major needs are for the surgery, trauma care, there we don't have access,” said Habicht.

He added that an Omicron-driven Covid-19 outbreak had peaked in Ukraine in mid-February and although this wave had been milder, many elderly people had been hospitalised.

The mass movement of people throughout the country to try to avoid the war is now likely to exacerbate the spread of the virus once more, he warned.

“Infectious diseases ruthlessly exploit the conditions created by war: the increase the transmission of these diseases from the crowding, the conditions. More people are vulnerable in the settings and there's less care available for them.

“It's as simple as that. What can we do about it? Number one, stop the war,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, Tedros’s special adviser.

Dr Heather Papowitz, the WHO’s incident manager for Europe, stressed that over 870,000 refugees had already entered surrounding countries that were also battling Covid-19. This would weaken and strain their systems too.

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