NEW YORK/GENEVA ¦ 25 September 2014 – The trend is sparking outrage at the World Health Organization (WHO): doctors, nurses, and others who work courageously to care for those caught up in armed conflicts and other health crises are increasingly targets of violence themselves. In many cases, patients also are being attacked.
This issue is the focus of a high-level debate on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly held 25 September, 2014, in New York on “Health care and violence: the need for effective protection,” featuring WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan and Dr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
During the last year, assaults on health facilities, health workers, and those seeking treatment have been reported during conflicts in Gaza, the Central African Republic, the Syrian Arab Republic, and elsewhere.
“Attacks are not just continuing. They are increasing,” says Dr Chan. “This trend is deeply disturbing. Health workers have an obligation to treat the sick and injured without discrimination. States must respect that obligation, and not punish health workers for performing their duties.”
The violence is not limited to conflict situations. It is occurring “with growing frequency in all regions of the world, and in all contexts, during peacetime as well as armed conflict and other humanitarian crises,” according to Dr Chan. “In recent years, the outcry has softened. The sense of outrage has been muted. The fact that these attacks have become so widespread must not be tolerated as the new normal.”
More than 2300 incidents involving serious acts or threats of violence in health-care settings between January 2012 and July 2014, but many more attacks go unreported, according to the ICRC.
“There must be an end to the targeting of health workers and facilities in conflicts and other health emergencies, as such acts break the fundamental right to health,” says Dr Richard Brennan, Director of WHO’s Department of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response. “Assaults on health workers and facilities seriously affect access to health care, depriving patients of treatment, and interrupting measures to prevent and control contagious diseases. WHO has a specific mandate to protect the human right to health, especially for people affected by humanitarian emergencies.”
WHO documents attacks on patients, health staff, and facilities. It also leads the Safe Hospitals Initiative, which is intended to ensure that healthcare is available under all circumstances, including emergencies.
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