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WHO: Attacks on healthcare claim over 700 lives since 2017

A Police officer stands guard as a health worker administers polio vaccine to a child during a polio vaccination door-to-door campaign, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 7 June 2021. (Credits: Keystone/ EPA/Bilawal Arbab)

Over 700 healthcare workers and patients have died since 2017 due to attacks on health facilities, and more than 2000 have been injured, according to new findings released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Between 2017 and 2021, the WHO’s platform on healthcare attacks recorded over 2,700 violent episodes, resulting in more than 700 deaths, in 17 emergency-affected countries.

Attacks on health facilities plummeted last year, moving from 1,029 in 2019 to just 323 in 2020. Surprisingly enough, the decrease started before the onset of the pandemic, and was mainly driven by a reduction in the number of reported attacks in Palestinian occupied territories and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, the recent fortnight of violence in Palestine has brought numbers back up, with 145 attacks on healthcare providers in last May alone. The total number of attacks so far this year has reached 603, with 115 deaths.

The report is based on data from the WHO’s Surveillance System for Attacks on Healthcare, which was launched in December 2017, and monitors attacks on healthcare workers, patients, facilities and transport. It comes after a 2016 resolution from the United Nations Security Council, which required member states to reduce violence against healthcare providers.

“The data is certainly showing that instability is driving these attacks,” said Altaf Musani, director of WHO’s health emergency programme, at the press conference unveiling the report.

The new study included countries from North and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Asia – all of which have experienced periods of conflict between 2018 and 2020.

The intensification of a conflict has a clear impact on the nature of attacks on healthcare, Musani explained. For instance, the series of protests held in the Gaza strip between March 2018 and December 2019 led to an escalation of violence in the area, causing 693 attacks on health facilities and four deaths.

The issue goes beyond emergency settings: with heightened tensions around Covid, healthcare workers are increasingly reporting abuses from patients and relatives, even in the global North.

But in emergency zones, where medical infrastructure is more fragile, these episodes of violence can have more drastic consequences.

“Given the context of Covid-19, it’s vital that healthcare workers are protected,” Musani added. “The impact of these healthcare attacks goes well beyond claiming lives. It reverberates on healthcare workers’ mental health and their willingness to report to work, and on communities’ willingness to seek health care.”

Meanwhile, attack reports continue to be added to the WHO’s platform. The last, to date, took place in Syria on 29 July, and involved the use of firearms – but made no casualties.