Health workers worldwide face increasing dangers

Joe DeCapua for VOA – WNN Breaking

Syrian health worker
A Syrian health worker works under a severe load to help displaced women who are in need of a midwife. Image: UNICEF

(WNN/VOA) Washington D.C., UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Health workers are frequently becoming targets in countries undergoing conflict or civil unrest. A new report says since 2012, hundreds have been attacked in dozens of countries.Human Rights Watch and the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition jointly issued the report called Under Attack.

Joe Amon, HRW’s health and human rights director, “Well, there’s been an increasing number of attacks against health workers, against patients and against health facilities. And this is occurring really globally. We’ve seen it in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. And it’s really something that needs broader attention and really a vigorous response.”

The attacks include the killing of 70 polio vaccination workers in Pakistan and Nigeria. The report also accuses opposition forces in South Sudan of shooting patients, as well as looting and burning hospitals and clinics in Bentiu, Malakal and Bor.

“It’s clear that in some cases people are deliberately targeting health workers. They’re seen as providing care to the opposition, instead of being seen as neutral medical providers. In other cases they may be in a crossfire, but it’s interrupting and really destabilizing critical health services for civilians in these settings,” he said.

The report listed dozens of attacks, killings and abductions of health workers in Afghanistan. It said the country now has a shortage of qualified women providing medical care.

Amon gave other examples of growing danger.

“We’re also seeing attacks in Turkey and Bahrain, for example, doctors being arrested and detained for providing care. It’s a phenomenon that’s of real concern. And I think the severity of the attacks is also increasing.”

The attacks have caused some hospitals and clinics to shut down.

“In some cases, yes,” said Amon,  “In Somalia and Central African Republic, that’s definitely occurred. And when that happens, it can leave thousands of people without any access to health care at all.”

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders closed its hospital in the northern CAR town of Boguila. That followed an attack on April 26th.  Sixteen civilians were killed, including three of the group’s employees.

The Human Rights Watch official said a number of things can be done to protect health workers.

“One is we need more information when attacks occur. We need to get better security for health workers in these places. Countries that have criminalized the provision of care to protesters need to repeal those laws. And there needs to be general respect for the idea that medical providers are providing care without regard to politics — and that they should be left out of conflict settings and not targeted at all.”

Amon said the international community can also do more.

“Next week, ministers [of] health from around the world are meeting in Geneva. And one of the things they’ll be looking at is a resolution from two years ago that they passed to do more on this issue — to do more surveillance of the issue and to do more response for it. I think clearly the Human Rights Council, the ministers of health from these countries, the WHO, other agencies, can say that this is a real priority. These kinds of attacks undermine the basic security of access to health care that people need,” he said.

The health ministers will meet from May 19th through the 24th.