World Health Organization Urged to Act over Assaults on Health Personnel and Facilities

Released by the World Medical Association, with IntraHealth Interntional and the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

May 12, 2011, Geneva, Switzerland—The World Health Organization has been urged by a number of health and non government organizations to take action on the growing number of assaults on health personnel and facilities in areas of conflict and civil unrest.

In a joint letter to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, the organizations say these assaults pose a threat to health, health systems and health worker retention. And they urge the WHO to convene a group of experts to find a way of systematically collecting data on what is happening around the world and identify research needed to enhance the protection of health systems.

The letters declares: ‘In recent weeks reports have emerged of doctors being arrested and assaulted for complying with their ethical duty to provide care to patients in need. They provide only a snapshot of a much wider problem of the lack of protection of health functions during crises.  These assaults not only result in obstructed access to health, but pose a formidable challenge to health systems, limiting the effective operation of health systems during instability while also impeding the development of health infrastructure and meeting human resource needs once stability returns.’

It says the WHO has the authority to assist all health personnel in such hazardous situations where they risk their lives for the care of their patients by contributing its particular expertise to developing methods for collecting evidence on these assaults. What was required was a plan for the collection of data, for assuring reporting of the data collected, identifying research needs for gaining better understanding of the problem, and providing guidance on how protection can be enhanced. 

This was in line with the WHO’s key functions to produce health statistics and “to reduce the health consequences of emergencies, disasters, crises and conflicts, and minimize their social and economic impact.”  The letters says that a clear evidence base is crucial if the nature and extent of how crises impact short-term and long-term on health systems is to be understood and interventions for preventing them are to be put in place.

The organizations that signed the letter were the World Medical Association, the International Medical Corps, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children UK, Merlin, IntraHealth International, Medact, Physicians for Human Rights, International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, the International Rescue Committee, Health Poverty Action UK and International Health Protection Initiative, Public Health Institute, Management Sciences for Health, Family Care International and People's Health Movement .

In a separate event, the World Medical Association, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and IntraHealth International will hold a briefing meeting during the week of the World Health Assembly in Geneva on Tuesday (17 May). The meeting is also designed to stimulate action by the international health community to protect doctors, nurses, other health workers and patients from assaults during periods of conflict. The United States Government is a co-sponsor of the event.

Dr Wonchat Subhachaturas, President of the WMA, said: ‘The numerous recent reports of doctors being arrested and assaulted during times of civil unrest underline the need for the international health community and WHO to provide needed leadership.

He added, ‘The targeting of health not only harms patients in dire need but can severely damage the capacity of health institutions and ministries to serve their people in the longer term.’

Leonard Rubenstein, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and long engaged in health and human rights, said:  ‘Robust documentation is always the first requirement for the protection of human rights, yet in the case of assaults on health, it remains the exception.’

Maurice Middleberg, Vice President of Global Policy at IntraHealth International added: ‘The dearth of health workers is already a major barrier to essential services among the poor and vulnerable. Violence or the threat of violence completely undermines efforts to remedy this problem. Health workers are killed, injured, kidnapped, are unable to reach patients, or flee. Urgent action is needed.’

Speakers at the event include Dr Nils Daulaire, Director, Office of Global Health Affairs, United States Department of Health and Human Service; Dr Robin Coupland, Medical Adviser, International Committee of the Red Cross; Dr Torunn Janbu, Chairperson of the WMA Medical Ethics Committee; Miatta Gabanya Nurse and Ambassador for Merlin and Leonard Rubenstein, Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The event will be moderated by Maurice Middleberg of IntraHealth.

The full text of the letter can be found at:

Contact: Laura Hoemeke
IntraHealth International
+1- 919-433-5720