Infections, lack of clean water and loss of healthcare are among the dangers facing Ukrainian people, with some hospitals already out of oxygen
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing a humanitarian emergency, aid agencies have warned, with death and disease likely to result from the loss of health services and other amenities, as well as the mass migration of refugees, in addition to the direct loss of life from military attacks.
More than half a million people have fled Ukraine and many are on the move within the country. The United Nations has said if the war escalates, up to 4 million Ukrainians, about a tenth of the population, may become refugees. “We’re seeing significant displacement within Ukraine and beyond. This brings increased levels of trauma, suffering and family separation,” says a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Refugees and internally displaced people tend to have worse health because of crowded and poor living conditions leading to the spread of infectious diseases, for instance.
Hospital care is being jeopardised by a lack of power and medical supplies, including oxygen. While people need oxygen support for many illnesses, such as heart and lung conditions, the covid-19 pandemic has increased demand. Like most countries in Europe, Ukraine is currently on the downward slope of a recent high spike of covid-19 cases caused by the omicron variant, with about 1700 people thought to be in hospital due to the disease.
Most hospitals are likely to use up their oxygen supplies within the next 24 hours, the World Health Organization said on 27 February, with some having already run out. “This puts thousands of lives at risk,” the WHO said in a statement.
Trucks are unable to move oxygen supplies from plants to hospitals across the country. Several oxygen manufacturers face shortages of the mineral zeolite, necessary for its production, which is mainly imported.
In the Donetsk region in the east, a million people are currently without access to clean water because two major water pumping stations have been affected by the attack, says the ICRC.
The charity has been supplying clean water to Dokuchaevsk hospital and municipal authorities. “Where clean water is lacking, infectious diseases and health problems are never far behind,” says an ICRC spokesperson. “It is vital that civilian infrastructure must not be targeted.”
Outbreaks of cholera, a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhoea and can be fatal, often occur in war-torn areas lacking clean water, especially those that lack medical care.
The invasion will also disrupt normal public health programmes. In January, Ukraine launched a national campaign to boost uptake of the polio vaccine in children, after 20 cases were discovered last year in the city of Rivne and the Zakarpattia region in the west.
Polio is a virus that can cause paralysis and death, with children under six at highest risk. The infection was close to being eradicated worldwide, but low childhood vaccination rates in Ukraine have led to a resurgence in the country.
In response to the invasion, Médecins Sans Frontières has had to stop several public health programmes it was running in the country, including ones to combat HIV and tuberculosis, alongside basic healthcare provision. “We are worried about the impact prolonged fighting could have on patients, many of whom are elderly and suffer from chronic diseases,” the charity said in a statement on 25 February.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Health asked doctors and healthcare staff from other countries to come to Ukraine to help. “Currently, there is an urgent need for health care workforce to help both along the front and in the rear,” the ministry said in a statement.