Russia vs. Ukraine: what are the consequences of the war on health?

The war that has started on the borders between Russia and Ukraine keeps the entire planet on alert. Civilians bear the brunt of hostilities.

Last update: 25 February, 2022

This Thursday the world was met with the news of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, in a context in which the health of the population of the border area was already weakened. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, announced that its military forces were beginning a “special military operation” in Donbaslocated in the eastern region of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s response came from orders from its executive branch, which restricted airspace, severed diplomatic relations with Russia and made males between the ages of 18 and 60 available for defense conscription. From Western countries, the main representatives of the European Union, the United States and NATO have announced immediate sanctions and an economic blockade against the country led by Putin.

Like every war the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine will have serious consequences for the health of the populations involved. In the first 24 hours, more than 200 casualties have already been reported and it is estimated that some 100,000 Ukrainians will emigrate forcibly to other neighboring countries.

A health system that was already weakened

According to reports and reports from the organization Doctors of the World, eastern Ukraine finds a health system weakened since the intervention of Russia in 2014. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation of the civilian population residing in this area.

The permanent health teams in Donetsk and Luhansk, two of the Ukrainian regions that Russia has recognized as independent this week, have very low vaccination rates against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In total, it is estimated that less than 40% of the adult population in Ukraine is vaccinated against COVID-19.

This goes hand in hand with the few medical personnel that are active in the region. Approximately 60% of doctors in eastern Ukraine are of retirement age. And even with them, the requirements of the World Health Organization (WHO) of 23 health professionals for every 10,000 inhabitants are not met.

Building structures for health care are collapsed in Donetsk and Luhansk. For 8 years the conflict has been latent and successive attacks have demolished buildings that were used to serve citizens.

The war between Russia and Ukraine sits on already difficult terrain for health care.

The immediate effects of war on health

As we said at the beginning, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine leads to a war, and that war has terrible consequences for the health of the populations. The most obvious are the injuries caused by the use of weapons..

These injuries almost always have to be considered in the context of a poor health system. It is impossible for hospitals to function at full capacity if they are in areas under constant attack and bombardment.

Although there are international agreements and treaties that limit the use of armed force against health personnel in the midst of war, the fact is that non-governmental aid organizations have frequently denounced that this is not respected. In fact, the fixing of hospitals as military objectives has aroused criticism and denunciations in recent years.

At par, accessibility to basic sanitation services suffers. Drinking water is scarce in war zones and water contamination is a relatively frequent occurrence.

Therefore, these regions under conflict tend to register increases in the incidence of infectious pathologies, especially of the gastrointestinal type. In children, the danger is dehydration, since vomiting and diarrhea that cannot be resolved with drinking water to rehydrate lead to death in children.

Hunger is another immediate scourge of war. Civilians are unable to maintain food production chains, just as agriculture is affected by the invasion of land and the lack of water for irrigation.

Nutrient deficiencies can lead to malnutrition in the short term. People go whole days without eating and express symptoms of micronutrient deficiencies.

The psychological effects of war

The war between Russia and Ukraine will have effects on mental health in the medium and long term. Based on records from previous conflicts around the world, up to 30% of those affected have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Women and children are the population groups with the worst consequences. The former are often victims of sexual abuse and the latter suffer from repetitive terrors that prevent them from carrying out normal activities for their age, such as attending school.

Refugees and emigrants are another group of people with mental health problems. The fact of having to leave the residence and the home to go out into the unknown is a trauma that carries the weight of the obligation, of not having been able to decide on that change that is imposed by force.

Although the host countries of the refugees try to arbitrate the means to provide the best possible care, The truth is that they tend to be overwhelmed. The constant waves of migrants that Europe has received in the last decade, from war zones, have shown that the structures are never enough to give adequate shelter to the victims.

And the numbers are staggering. In 2020, 82 million people were forcibly displaced. Among them, 26 million are considered refugees.

Since 1951 there is a Convention on the Status of Refugees. This United Nations text advocates special protection for victims who have to leave their country due to a war in their territory.

There it is specified that there should be no discrimination against them. However, these people must deal with the impossibility of finding work in the receiving country and with the constant stigma that falls on them for being poor and foreigners.

Humanitarian aid never seems enough. NGOs often claim that resources are not enough.

Wars never bring health

War conflicts have never brought health; this recent confrontation between Russia and Ukraine will be no exception. Meanwhile, neighboring countries are preparing to receive a large contingent of emigrants.

For their part, non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations advocate a ceasefire and a diplomatic understanding. Although the hopeful future looks far at present.

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