UN begins testing data collection system to help track, curb attacks against health workers

WHO estimates that at least 51 hospitals have been damaged or partially destroyed over the past six months due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Photo: WHO Yemen

8 December 2015 – The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that it now testing a new system for collecting data to ensure that attacks against healthcare workers in the line of fire – from Afghanistan to Ukraine and Yemen – do not go unnoticed and that they are better protected from violence and harm.

“The attacks and deaths are tragic enough, but the loss of health workers, services and facilities results in less care for people, compounding the suffering caused by conflicts and other emergencies,” the agency said.

Just yesterday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) drew attention to the fact that in Syria, where almost 60 per cent of hospitals have been partially or completely destroyed, health facilities have been routinely hit by aerial bombing, and countless health workers have been killed or injured along with their patients. WHO added that more than half of Syria’s health workers have fled or been killed.

“Protecting health care workers is one of the most pressing responsibilities of the international community,” said Jim Campbell, director of WHO’s Health Workforce department. “Without health workers, there is no health care.”

According to WHO, data compiled from a range of sources has revealed that in 2014 alone, 603 health workers were killed and 958 injured in such attacks in 32 countries.

And until now, the agency said, data on attacks against health workers has been piecemeal and there has been no standard way of reporting them.

To ensure that these attacks don’t go unnoticed, WHO said it has developed a new system for collecting data and is being tested in Central African Republic, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“It will be available for use early next year,” according to WHO. “But the project doesn’t only aim to collect data. It also plans to use the information to identify patterns and find ways to avoid attacks or mitigate their consequences.”

Attacks on hospitals and clinics in conflict situations are just one of the threats health workers face. During West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, a team of eight people trying to raise awareness about the outbreak were killed in Guinea amid a climate of fear and suspicion. More than 400 health workers lost their lives after becoming infected while treating Ebola patients.

“Every time a doctor is too afraid to come to work, or a hospital is bombed, or supplies are looted, it impedes access to health care,” said Erin Kenney, who manages the WHO project that has developed the new system.

In December 2014, the UN General Assembly agreed to strengthen international efforts to ensure the safety of health personnel and to collect data on threats and attacks against health workers, and a WHO report calling for measures to improve security for workers and healthcare for patients is expected this month, the agency said.


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