Voice of America (Washington, DC)

19 August 2014

West Africa: Protect Health Workers - WHO

The World Health Organization warns of a growing trend of targeting health workers and hospitals during conflicts and humanitarian crises. The U.N. agency issued the warning to mark World Humanitarian Day, August 19th.

The World Health Organization said that "major emergencies around the world are increasing in scale, complexity and frequency." It said that's denying many people their "fundamental right to health."

Dr. Richard Brennan, director of the WHO's Department of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response, said, "Over the last 80 months is probably the busiest period in the history of humanitarian work. And that's due to a number of high profile and very impactful emergencies in places such as Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Iraq and the Ebola epidemic right now in West Africa. Not to mention all the other crises are aren't quite as prominent, such as Somalia and Yemen and Eastern Congo."

The recent conflict in Gaza is another example. Health workers, clinics, patients and ambulances have been deliberately targeted in those conflicts.

Brennan said that denies people medical care when they need it most. In Pakistan and Nigeria, those administering polio vaccines, have been attacked. Most of them are women. Dr. Brennan called it a violation of international law.

"It's abandonment of this widely held principle that's been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, of the sanctity of health care."

He said the main victims of conflicts in the 21st Century are civilians.

"We're seeing this terribly right now in northern Iraq, of course. But we've seeing it in South Sudan, in Central African Republic. In Central African Republic, you've seen whole religious and ethnic groups forced from their communities. Religious and ethnic cleansing. And underlying all of this are political issues. And unfortunately the political leaders, the community leaders, aren't stepping forward to address the underlying causes and it's left to the humanitarians to come in and apply band aid measures, essentially."

Millions of people, he said, are suffering as a result. The WHO official has a message for the leaders of the warring parties.

"For the leaders of those groups, I'd ask them to move beyond their own greed, their own lust for power, their own pride. And sit down with their counterparts and come up with a compromise so their people can live in peace," he said.

The World Health Organization says it's working with its partners to "better document, prevent and respond" to attacks on health workers. It calls caring for the "sick and vulnerable in the world's most difficult circumstances... one of the most pressing responsibilities of the international community."

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