As Ukrainians Flee, WHO Stresses Importance of Lifesaving NCD Care for Refugees and Migrants
WHO NCD Director Dr Bente Mikkelsen

As streams of Ukrainians leave their country to escape from Russian attacks, the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned that they, and other migrants and refugees, are not being included in programmes to treat critical non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like diabetes, that can be deadly if treatment is not maintained.

WHO’s NCD Director Dr Bente Mikkelsen said that she had been approached on Tuesday to assist with diabetes treatment for ill Ukrainian refugees.

Addressing the launch of a new WHO review on ensuring NCD care and treatment for migrants on Tuesday, Mikkelsen said that “international migrants, including refugees, may face extreme poverty and inadequate access to food and health care already in their own countries, and then during the migration process, and in the country of destination, they may be exposed by economic inequalities, social exclusion and discrimination.”

“As we speak, unfortunately, we see a new big wave of migration happening due to the horrible situation in Ukraine. This morning, I was contacted by people really concerned about diabetes care in already sick patients, and how we could best support this,” she added.

Meanwhile, WHO Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, said that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals emphasised the principles of “leaving no one behind, including refugees and migrants”. 

“Refugees and migrants have specific health needs and vulnerabilities, which in practice, may all too often fail to be recognised and addressed and which may have been exacerbated during the pandemic,” added Jakab. 

“It is imperative that has the health needs of these vulnerable groups is addressed by transmitting and receiving countries using human rights principles and with careful coordination across sectors,” said Jakab, adding that more research was needed to better understand the global trends, magnitude and implications of migration and health as well as how to address migrants’ NCD-related needs

Almost three-quarters (74%) of global deaths are caused by cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and lung diseases, said Mikkelson and that the lack of investment in NCD care was “dire”, particularly since COVID-19.

The review looks at “academic and grey literature published between 2010 and 2021” that identified major challenges for NCDs in refugees and migrants because of the multifaceted dynamics of the migration processes. 

Migrant-specific barriers in accessing NCD services include cultural and language differences, social exclusion, discrimination and legal status, according to the review.

It calls for strengthened governance and policies, research and data monitoring, and health service delivery to ensure inclusive NCD prevention, treatment and care to meet internationally agreed goals and targets.

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