Winter threatens the lives of millions of people in Ukraine

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned earlier this week that winter will threaten the lives of millions of Ukrainians, after a series of devastating Russian strikes on the country’s energy infrastructure.

For Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, “this winter will endanger the lives of millions of people in Ukraine (…) and the health of the population cannot be held hostage (…) To put it simply, this winter will be a question of survival”.

According to the European branch of the UN World Health Agency, the country is facing a heat crisis which adds to a permanent crisis caused by the war and the pandemic.

“The devastating energy crisis, worsening mental health emergency, constraints on humanitarian access and the risk of viral infections will make this winter a daunting test for the Ukrainian health system and the Ukrainian people, but also for the world and its commitment to support Ukraine”, she indicated.

Meanwhile, Dr Kluge added, the damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure “are already having devastating effects on the health system and on the health of the population“. According to the WHO, half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is damaged or destroyed.

10 million Ukrainians without electricity

This situation is already having repercussions on the health system and on the health of the population.

Today, 10 million people – a quarter of the population – are without electricity. “The cold can kill,” warned the Head of WHO for Europe, recalling that temperatures should drop to -20 ˚C in certain regions of Ukraine.

As desperate families try to stay warm, many will be forced to turn to alternative heating methods, such as burning charcoal or wood, or using diesel-powered generators, or electric heaters.

These methods carry health risks, including exposure to toxic substances harmful to children, the elderly, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, as well as accidental burns and injuries.

Under these conditions, the WHO expects that “an additional two to three million people are leaving their homes in search of warmth and security“. “They will face significant health issues, including respiratory infections such as Covid-19, pneumonia, influenza and a serious risk of diphtheria and measles in an under-vaccinated population”said Hans Kluge.

More than 700 attacks against health establishments

In other words, this winter will be about survival. This WHO alert comes as it has recorded more than 700 attacks on Ukrainian health facilities since the Russian invasion began in February. This constitutes, according to Dr. Kluge, “a manifest violation” of international humanitarian law.

Continued attacks on health and energy infrastructure ultimately mean that “hundreds of hospitals and health facilities are no longer fully operational”. They lack fuel, water and electricity to meet basic needs.

“Populations will face significant health challenges including respiratory infections such as Covid-19, pneumonia, influenza and a serious risk of diphtheria and measles in an under-vaccinated population”noted Dr. Kluge, noting that “maternities need incubators, blood banks need refrigerators, intensive care beds need ventilators, and all need energy”.

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