Physicians at war: Health challenges in Ukraine

By Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Published April 22, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Ukraine faces a shortage of essential medicines and medical supplies as the war continues.

  • Rates of diseases like COVID-19 and tuberculosis may increase as a result of refugee movements and vaccination status.

  • International organizations like the WHO are working diligently to provide needed medical supplies to the war-torn country.

Beyond the damage inflicted by bombing and shelling, people in Ukraine currently face the possibility of an unprecedented health crisis.

As military action continues, attacks on hospitals and other health facilities have become unfortunately common. Public health officials predict the war will have far-reaching consequences that may affect several generations.[]

In less than 1 month, more than 3 million people fled the country, while almost 2 million were displaced within it.[] Those still in Ukraine face medical supply and medication shortages, supply chain issues, and potential spikes in cases of contagious diseases including COVID-19 and tuberculosis.

The pressure Ukrainian physicians face is immense as they work to save lives on the battlefield and in the community.[] However, worldwide response to the conflict is helping to provide some relief. Many international organizations have stepped up to provide aid, and physicians from other countries are calling for an end to the war.[]

Lack of supplies plague Ukrainian population

Supply chain interruptions are one of the most pressing issues in Ukraine.

Since the war's early days, reports have highlighted shortages of essential medications and medical equipment such as oxygen. 

According to a February report from theBBC, about 1,700 patientswere expected to need oxygen treatment for COVID-19.[] However, several manufacturing facilities within the country face shortages of zeolite, an imported chemical essential to producing safe, medical-grade oxygen. By early March 2022, three major Ukraine oxygen plants were already closed.

Essential medications like insulin are also running low due to supply chain disruptions.[] Many distributors within the country are non-operational. Because of military operations, stockpilesof medicines and supplies aren’t accessible.[] When people arrive in refugee centers in neighboring countries, common supplies such as feminine hygiene products are missing—as a result, volunteers have begun distributing “dignity kits” to women arriving at the centers.

Additionally, many healthcare and manufacturing facilities experience unpredictable electricity and power shortages. Destroyed facilities lead to pop-up clinics and laboratories where medical personnel attempt to perform their duties. 

For example, nurses struggle to ventilate patients manually in makeshift ICUs in hospital basements. And bomb alarms cause disruptions in normal hospital operations two to three times daily, necessitating the movement of patients to safer locations such as underground bunkers.

Possible spikes in COVID-19, tuberculosis cases

International health organizations are also concerned that the war could precipitate a spike in COVID-19 cases, along with other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. According to the World Health Organization, the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined, but there’s speculation that Ukraine cases could climb as a result of increased transmission among refugees and relatively low COVID-19 vaccination rates among the country’s population.[]

Historically, Ukraine also has high rates of death and disability from tuberculosis, including drug-resistant TB. Before the war, an organization called Stop TB was working to address the issue and obtain medications for the disease. Now, as hospitals and other facilities are destroyed, critical TB treatments cannot be offered to those in need.

How the world—and other providers—are helping

As the crisis in Ukraine becomes more urgent, people around the world have rallied to help the war-torn country.

Organizations like Project HOPE collect donations from individuals, streaming platforms, and employee giving campaigns to deliver essential medical supplies to Ukraine, including pallets of pharmaceutical products, interagency emergency health kits, and even mobile medical units.

Other organizations, such as the World Health Organization, are also working to deliver supplies, deploy medical teams, and minimize disruption to the delivery of healthcare services.[] Additionally, the WHO is helping the country plan for—and hopefully avoid—potentially catastrophic events involving any of the country’s 15 nuclear reactors which may be damaged by artillery shelling or fire.

Physicians around the world continue to condemn the actions taken against the people of Ukraine. In a statement from the American Medical Association, President Gerald E. Harmon, MD said, “The AMA is outraged by the senseless injury and death the Russian army has inflicted on the Ukraine people.

"For those who survive these unprovoked attacks, the physical, emotional, and psychological health of Ukrainians will be felt for years."

Gerald E. Harmon, MD

Beyond providing financial support, physicians interested in helping Ukrainians directly can apply for inclusion in organizations like Doctors Without Borders. Experienced doctors can provide vital services such as mass casualty training, distribution of emergency medical supplies, and trauma care.

The end of the war seems far off, but physicians can take action to help the people of Ukraine.

Doing so will help mitigate the effects of the humanitarian crisis the country faces, and could help save millions of lives.

What this means for you

As the war continues in Ukraine, its citizens face a shortage of essential medicines and medical supplies. Concerns that diseases such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis may spike have prompted international health organizations to provide medical supplies and care. As a physician, you may be able to contribute to these efforts through organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.

Related: Physicians’ responsibilities during disasters

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