In Face of Growing Conflict and Climate Emergencies, WHO Appeals for $1.5 Billion
Attacks on health facilities and services has become a deliberate tactic of war.

Climate and conflict-related malnutrition in the Horn of Africa, rising gender-based violence in Haiti and attacks on medical facilities are some of the challenges facing the World Health Organization (WHO) as it seeks $1.5 billion to finance its emergency response.

“For those facing emergencies, disruptions to essential health services often mean the difference between life and death,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the launch of the global body’s health emergency appeal on Monday.

The WHO needs the money to address 41 emergencies affecting an estimated 87 million people – greater than the populations of Germany, France or the UK.

“There are only two ways to reduce the human suffering caused by health crises: increase the funding or reduce the needs. Neither is happening at the moment. The cost of inaction is one the world cannot afford,” added Tedros.

“The greater Horn of Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions when it comes to climate change and that appears through erratic rainfalls rising temperatures which then translates into droughts and floods,”  said Liesbeth Albrecht, WHO’s incident manager in that region.

“The increase in these deadly climate related disasters together with conflict has driven extremely high levels of hunger. Currently more than 50 million people are food insecure, which represents more than 30% increase compared to mid-2022. 

“We’re seeing the highest numbers in years of malnourished children, including 2.7 million, with severe acute malnutrition, which not only increases their risk of starvation, but also weakens these kids’ immunity, which makes them much more susceptible to disease,” she added.

People fleeing drought and conflict in the Horn of Africa take refuge in a temporary camp.

Lawlessness and rape

Meanwhile, Haiti recorded an increase of over 150% in serious crimes such as kidnappings, murders and gender based violence, particular rape.

“Armed gangs now control 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and gang activity has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes,” said Dr Oscar Barreneche, WHO’s Haiti representative.

“As the violence spreads in the country, almost half of Haitians are facing food insecurity, which explains the whopping 30% increase in the case of acute severe child malnutrition observed recently.”

In the first half of last year, 6000 cases of gender-based violence were recorded, and only 16% of those affected received health services, he added.

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s executive director of health emergencies, said that he was concerned about the “rapid increase in hunger, driven by climate driven and conflict” globally.

“Famine is what weakens the human immune system; weakens the human capacity to resist disease and very often creates conditions for a secondary health crisis,” said Ryan.

Dr Mike Ryan, WO executive director of health emergencies.

Deliberate attacks on health facilities

“We are witnessing an era in which attacking healthcare has become a tactic of war,” added Ryan. “Not euphemistically referred to before as collateral damage or accidental damage, but actually fundamentally a weapon that is used to increase terror and to deny people the health services that they need.”

Martin Griffiths, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said 2023 had been a year where health institutions had been targeted as a priority in territories such as Sudan, Gaza and Ukraine.

“That red cross sign, which was there to protect people, has become a sign for an attack,” said Griffiths.

In 2023, there were 1300 attacks on health care across 19 countries, resulting in more than 700 deaths and 1100 injuries to health workers and patients, he added.

“In the Occupied Palestinian Territories alone, more than 624 attacks on healthcare have resulted in the deaths of 619 health workers and patients and the injury of 826 others as of 11 January,” said Griffiths.

Denise Brown, UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Ukraine, said that the availability of health care “holds a community together”. 

“Every community needs a doctor, needs a nurse, needs a health care professional; a place to go when you’re sick when you have a baby to deliver, surgery, vaccinations,” said Brown. 

“So unfortunately, the flip side of that is that the loss of healthcare disrupts the well being of a community. People have to leave and that’s what we see oftentimes in the communities directly impacted by the war in Ukraine. 

“The loss of health care is also the beginnings of the loss of a sense of community. Following the full scale invasion by the Russian Federation February 2022, according to WHO, there have been more than 1400 attacks on health infrastructure in Ukraine.”

‘Small price’ to protect health

Paying tribute to the WHO’s leadership in emergencies, Griffiths said that when he visited humanitarian crises, he often found Tedros and Ryan were already there.

“In 2023, WHO led the health cluster in meeting the health needs of 102 million people across 29 countries. They supported more than 44 million primary health care consultations. WHO deployed more than 8000 mobile clinics and help to distribute 30 million oral cholera vaccine doses,” said Griffiths, adding that the need was expected to be even greater this year.

“The sum asked is a very small price to pay to protect the health of the most vulnerable and to prevent deepening of the global health crisis,” added Griffiths.

Image Credits: International Committee of the Red Cross, WHO.

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