Ukraine war: Attacks, damaged health system may lead to surge in infectious disease cases


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Experts warn the Russian invasion into Ukraine may cause cases of polio, cholera measles to surge because the infectious diseases thrive on the war’s unsanitary conditions, according to CNN.

“In terms of what we call vaccine-preventable diseases, the status in Ukraine was that the population was not vaccinated to the extent which you would get herd immunity like you would in many other European countries or in the US,” said Kate White, an emergency program manager for Doctors Without Borders, on Tuesday.

Firefighters evacuate an elderly woman from an apartment building hit by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine
(Ukrainian State Emergency Service via AP)

Ukrainians are not only now more susceptible to these rare infectious diseases because of their known low vaccination rates, but also because the country’s health system is no longer administering routine vaccinations, the news outlet added. 

White added the public health situation is compounded because some places have poor water supplies, are without electricity also have issues with sanitation — all ingredients ripe for an outbreak like cholera. 

The bacteria is transmitted after eating or drinking contaminated food or water known to cause mild to severe watery diarrhea, where a small subset can die within hours of dehydration if not treated promptly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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And the country has suffered from cholera before.

“Ukraine was the last country within Europe to have a cholera outbreak in 2011, that was in Mariupol,” White added.

Russian attacks have ravaged the city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials estimate approximately 2,500 civilians have died, but around 350,000 people are trapped without water, electricity, heat in conditions that are described as “just hell.” 

Refugees wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine

Refugees wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine
(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

As these war conditions worsen, the risk of other diseases like polio measles increases as more people are forced together just as medical supplies continue to decline, per the news outlet. 

Polio is a contagious virus that can cause paralysis by spreading through person-to-person contact, while measles is also a very infectious virus known to cause upper respiratory symptoms followed by a red bumpy rash that spreads when people breathe in contaminated air or touch an infected surface, per the CDC.

But as war conditions squeeze the Ukrainians into tighter, often more unsanitary spaces, health care facilities across Ukraine are struggling at a time when they need them the most, because many are not functional anymore or have been targeted by the Russian military, according to CNN.

Ukrainian official Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional administration, accused the Russian military of holding doctors patients against their will in a regional intensive care hospital in Mariupol, according to a statement posted on Telegram. 

Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river

Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river
((AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) )

“It is impossible to get out of the hospital. They shoot hard, we sit in the basement. Cars have not been able to drive to the hospital for two days. High-rise buildings around us are burning. … The Russians have rushed 400 people from neighboring buildings to our hospital. We can’t leave,” Kyrylenko said, quoting a hospital employee, who communicated information about the hospital situation this Tuesday.

He added that even though the hospital was “practically destroyed,” the staff patients stayed in the basement, where the healthcare workers continue to treat them.

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“In Ukraine, since the start of the war, 31 attacks on health care have been documented via the WHO’s Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care (SSA). According to these reports, in 24 incidents health care facilities were damaged or destroyed, while in five cases ambulances were damaged or destroyed,” according to a joint statement by The World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF.

The statement called for “an immediate cessation of all attacks on health care” in Ukraine, adding the attacks led to at least 12 deaths 34 injuries that affected access to essential healthcare services.

The war conditions have created a situation where there are now more people needing care but fewer hospitals available to actually help, per CNN.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there is anything particularly unique, that really actually breaks my heart that I’ve seen this too many times before,” White said. 

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“We’re only at the start of the burden that the health system is going to face as this conflict continues.”



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