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The WHO says Ukrainian health care is under attack, and it needs more funds to help

A nurse checks a baby in a hospital basement being used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv. More than 300 health facilities lie within conflict lines or areas that Russia claims to control, according to the World Health Organization.
Aris Messinis
AFP via Getty Images
A nurse checks a baby in a hospital basement being used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv. More than 300 health facilities lie within conflict lines or areas that Russia claims to control, according to the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization has verified 43 attacks on health care in the three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine and says hundreds more facilities remain at risk.

In remarks on Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined the agency's efforts to meet Ukrainians' immediate health needs and said more donor support is needed. The WHO has received just $8 million of its $57.5 million appeal so far, he added.

"Huge amounts of money are being spent on weapons. We ask donors to invest in ensuring that civilians in Ukraine and refugees receive the care they need," he said. "And we continue to call for attacks on health care to stop."

More than 300 health facilities lie within conflict lines or areas that Russia claims to control, Ghebreyesus said, and another 600 are within 10 kilometers (or just over 6 miles) of the conflict line.

The WHO is sending personnel and supplies to the region

He added that the WHO has established supply lines to many Ukrainian cities but is facing financial constraints and access issues in getting people the support they need.

It has opened a field office in Poland to support its Ukrainian operations and coordinate the response to refugee health needs and is also deploying 20 emergency medical teams of international experts, pending a formal request for assistance from Ukraine's health ministry.

The agency is also sending equipment and supplies to Ukraine. Those include some 220,000 pounds of things like oxygen, insulin, surgical supplies, anesthetics and blood transfusion kits, electrical generators and defibrillators, with nearly 240,000 pounds more on the way.

Ghebreyesus' appeal came days after the WHO warned that it was "working day and night" to keep medical supply chains open and Ukraine's health system functioning.

It said many distributors aren't operating, some stockpiles are inaccessible because of military operations, medicine supplies are running low and hospitals are struggling to meet the needs of sick and wounded patients — as missile attacks on health care facilities continue.

"Nurses have had to ventilate patients manually in hospital basements, away from Russian shelling," the United Nations wrote in a release.

Russia has targeted health care facilities in previous conflicts, such as the Chechen War from 1999 to 2009 and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Experts spoke to NPR about the immediate and long-term effects of those attacks.

The WHO is also working to support the health care systems of neighboring countries, which have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees in recent weeks.

The WHO is getting and soliciting funding from a variety of sources

The WHO Foundation launched an emergency appeal on March 3 in which it called on people around the world to help raise approximately $57.5 million to "fund the large-scale emergency response needed to deliver urgent healthcare and support the immediate health needs of those affected by the crisis, in Ukraine and surrounding countries." The donation page is here.

It broke that sum down into $45 million to support Ukrainian access to health care and $12.5 million to aid Ukrainian refugees in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania.

"The people of Ukraine need urgent action and support from the rest of the world to ensure its health care is functioning and protected so further loss of life is prevented," said Anil Soni, CEO of the WHO Foundation. "I urge anyone who can to donate to ensure all those in need of basic health care, as well as those wounded and directly affected by the conflict, have safe access to lifesaving care."

The U.N. also said earlier this week that it is allocating $40 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to "ramp up vital assistance to reach the most vulnerable," the second round of such funding since the start of the war.

A U.N. crisis relief flash appeal started on March 1 requires $1.1 billion in immediate funding to support 6 million of Ukraine's most vulnerable people. Donors reported contributing $219 million as of Monday. Plus, private-sector donors have so far contributed some $200 million — out of the $510 million sought — to a separate appeal from the U.N. refugee agency, aimed at helping families displaced by the fighting.

Ukraine is far from the only country with a vulnerable health care system

While discussing the dire situation in Ukraine, Ghebreyesus also noted on Wednesday that it is far from the only place where health workers, facilities, patients, infrastructure and supply are under attack.

"2022 is only 75 days old, but already WHO has verified 89 attacks on health care around the world, in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Nigeria, the occupied Palestinian territory, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, and of course, Ukraine," he said.

Those attacks have killed 35 people and injured 53. That includes the eight polio vaccination workers who were killed in Afghanistan last month, the same day that Russian forces first invaded Ukraine.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.