As Earthquakes Hit Turkey and Syria, WHO Extends Refugee Health Plan – Undertakes Traditional Medicine Policy
Daraa, Syria, is devastated by war.

As a second earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on Monday morning, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) member states offered their solidarity during an Executive Board (EB) session that presciently focused on refugees and migrants.

The two earthquakes struck within 12 hours, and by Monday evening over 2,600 deaths had been reported, while thousands of people had been displaced as their homes were destroyed.

Syria’s representative appealed to the EB for support from member states, saying that many people were still under ruins.

“The emergency services are working flat out at all levels. They’re doing their utmost, but it’s a terrible disaster,” she said. “We’re facing a lot of problems today, and that’s also because of the blockade on our country. We call on the conscience of the world to wake up and support us. We hope that WHO and all of its member states will help us as we seek to grapple with this disaster.”

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the EB that the WHO’s network of emergency medical teams had been activated “to provide essential health care for the injured and most vulnerable affected by the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria”. 

Extension of WHO action plan on refugees and migrants

Meanwhile, the EB resolved to extend the WHO’s action plan on refugee and migrant health through to 2030. 

It is estimated that there are more than one billion people on the move globally, about one in eight of the global population, according to a report prepared by Tedros for the EB.

“In 2020, there were 281 million international migrants and by June 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people had reached more than 100 million,” the report added. 

“Migration and displacement are key determinants of health and well-being. Refugees and migrants remain among the most vulnerable members of society faced often with: xenophobia; discrimination; poor living and working conditions; and inadequate access to health services, despite frequently occurring physical and mental health problems.”

The WHO action plan was focused on five priorities, including “promoting the health of refugees and migrants through a mix of short-term and long-term public health interventions” and ensuring the “continuity and quality of essential health care, while developing, reinforcing and implementing occupational health and safety measures”, according to the Secretariat report.

“The need is now to shift the operational paradigm from immediate issues to a longer-term vision for refugee and migrant health,” it added.

Poland’s lessons from Ukraine

Poland told the EB that the war in Ukraine had forced it to update its approach to refugees, and it was ready to “share our experience in order to contribute to global response to the health needs of refugees”

“Last year, we encountered a new, unexpected situation which has caused the biggest wave of migration in Europe since World War Two,” said Poland. “Since 24 February last year, almost 10 million of our neighbours from Ukraine have crossed the Polish border.”

Poland had enabled Ukrainians to get free access to universal health services, set up hotlines to facilitate understanding of how to access services and an innovative digital application that “enables smooth communication between a doctor and patient not speaking the same language”. 

“We ensured the continuation of long-term TB and HIV/AIDS treatment according to the Ukrainian scheme and with the same medicines they were taking at home”, while Ukrainian children were included in the Polish system of vaccinations. 

Ukrainian refugees

Morocco told the EB that “60% of refugees throughout the world are in our region [the Eastern Mediterranean].” 

“Yemen is one country that is particularly severely affected by war. There’s been a war raging there for seven years and this has triggered a very serious crisis, one of the worst in the world, and 70% of people living there need humanitarian assistance just to survive,” said Morocco.

In June, Morocco will be hosting a third round of global consultations on the health of refugees and migrants to provide guidance for decision-makers to strengthen healthcare for refugees and migrants throughout the world.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs Loyce Pace said that her country was a co-sponsor of the resolution, stating that “we must strengthen our commitment to address the needs of health needs of refugees and migrants in all their diversity, especially as countries chart their path towards achieving universal health coverage”. 

“Reaching women and girls in conflict-affected fragile settings is essential to promoting gender equality, and empowering all women as well as achieving key targets,” said Pace.

“We expect WHO to lead by example and show member states that refugees and migrants should play a central role in the implementation phase.”

This sentiment was echoed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which called for refugees to be included in the development and implementation of any health plans aimed at them.

Meanwhile, Rwanda, speaking for the 47 African member states, appealed for the integration of migrant and refugee health into regional and international initiatives “in a way that lessens the burden on host countries, enhancing coordination and partnership, capacity strengthening and support, strategic health information and multi-sectoral approaches to health”. 

Traditional medicine policy 

The EB also adopted a draft decision calling for a global policy on traditional medicine that was tabled by Bangladesh, China, Eswatini, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.

The WHO and India are establishing a Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Jamnagar in Gujarat in India, and 170 of the 194 member states report that their citizens use traditional medicine.

Thailand, on behalf of the WHO Southeast Asia region, expressed its support for the global centre, noting that it would “harness the potential of traditional medicine from across the world through knowledge sharing, evidence generation and incorporating modern science and technology to improve the health of people and the planet”.

Meanwhile, the US’s Pace stressed the importance of “scientific rigour in studying the safety and efficacy of traditional medicines” and “evaluating traditional medicine”.

“Member states must also adhere to their obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and take meaningful action to protect endangered species from exploitation,” she added.

Image Credits: Mahmoud Sulaiman/ Unsplash, Maria Teneva/ Unsplash, Kevin Buckert/ Unsplash.

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