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

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been urged by a consortium of 18 health and non-governmental 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 WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, executive authors from IntraHealth International, the World Medical Association, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say these assaults pose a threat to health, health systems, and health worker retention. The authors urge the WHO to convene a group of experts to devise a system for collecting and monitoring evidence of assaults on health workers in conflict zones and to identify research needed to enhance the protection of health systems worldwide.

“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,” say the authors in their letter to Dr. Chan.

Furthermore, the letter asserts, “WHO has the authority to assist all health personnel in such hazardous situations where they risk their lives for the care of their patients.” The authors say that the WHO should contribute its expertise in several specific actions, which the authors say align 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.”

A total of 18 international organizations co-signed the letter, which was mailed to Dr. Chan at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday morning, ahead of the World Health Assembly [link to World Health Assembly] next week. They are: 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, International Health Protection Initiative, Public Health Institute, Management Sciences for Health, Family Care International, and People's Health Movement.

Advocating for Health Workers in Crisis

“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,” said Maurice Middleberg, vice president of global policy at IntraHealth.

Dr. Wonchat Subhachaturas, president of the World Medical Association, 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, has long engaged in health and human rights. He 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.”

World Health Assembly Briefing | Tuesday, May 17

“The Protection of Patients, Health Workers, and Facilities in Conflict: A Role for the World Health Organization”

IntraHealth International, the World Medical Association, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will hold a briefing meeting during the week of the World Health Assembly in Geneva on Tuesday (May 17). 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.

The event will be moderated by Maurice Middleberg of IntraHealth. Speakers include Dr. Nils Daulaire, director, Office of Global Health Affairs, United States Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Robin Coupland, medical adviser, International Committee of the Red Cross; Dr. Torunn Janbu, chairperson of the World Medical Association’s Medical Ethics Committee; Miatta Gabanya, nurse and ambassador for Merlin; and Leonard Rubenstein, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.                                                             

The full text of the letter can be found here.

For further information on IntraHealth’s role please contact:

Laura Hoemeke           
Director of Strategic Communications
IntraHealth International
+1- 919-433-5720

Maurice Middleberg    
Vice President for Global Policy
IntraHealth International
+1- 202-407-9424