Event co-hosted with IFMSA in Geneva ahead of publication of WISH-WHO report

Global experts have drawn attention to the massive rise in attacks on health during armed conflict, with numbers almost doubling in 2023.

This alarming trend was the focus of a session at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), an initiative of the Qatar Foundation, in collaboration with the International Federation of Medical Student Associations (IFMSA). The event took place on the sidelines of the 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

The session shed light on the targeting of health systems during armed conflict, exploring the challenges faced, assessing the impact, and discussing potential solutions to safeguard health in times of crisis.

An audience mostly made up of medical students heard of the importance of preserving and protecting health services, and the people delivering them, at a systematic level. As well as hearing from speakers from WISH, the World Health Organization, and Cambridge University, video messages were played from medical students in Gaza and Sudan outlining the dire situation faced by their health systems.

‘To date we have documented more than 900 attacks on health provision in Gaza and the West Bank since 7 October last year. In Sudan there’s hardly a health facility left that hasn’t been impacted,’ said Rick Brennan, Regional Emergencies Director, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, speaking at the session, titled Targeting of Health Systems During Armed Conflict: Challenges, Impacts, and Solutions. ‘I don’t know an individual or organization that’s ever been specifically held accountable for an attack on healthcare.  We need more detailed investigations, we need to document what’s happening, and we need to put it into the hands of those who can take action.’

Later this year, WISH, in collaboration with the WHO, will publish a report on health and armed conflict. The report will be presented at WISH 2024, which will take place on 13-14 November at the Qatar National Convention Centre, Doha.

Armed conflicts have dire consequences on health systems, leading to devastating impacts on populations, health infrastructure, and the provision of essential services. Deliberate attacks against health facilities, workers, and patients are not only violations of international humanitarian law, but also exacerbate the already precarious health situation in conflict-affected areas.

At the event, Jim Campbell, Director of Health Workforce at the WHO, emphasised the urgent need for member states and health ministers to protect health systems and workers. ‘The Safeguarding Health in Conflict 2023 Report found more than 2500 incidents in 2023 alone, including 685 cases where health workers – doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers – were arrested or kidnapped, and 487 instances where they had been killed… This is almost double the number in 2022. This clearly shows the irrefutable obligation to uphold international humanitarian law. Violence against health workers has reached epidemic proportions.’

Sultana Afdhal, Chief Executive Officer of WISH, also noted that attacks on health systems are unacceptable and stressed the importance of advocating for action. ‘As a global platform for tackling the most challenging issues of our time it is vital that we lend our voice to those calling for action. Working alongside IFMSA to co-host this session in Geneva has given us the chance to mobilise tomorrow’s health leaders.

‘As the health and care workforce of the future, they have a powerful voice to hold decision makers to account,’ she added. ‘This topic requires significant attention at this time, so having the opportunity to hear from experts in the field of health and care, health service delivery, and health in conflict settings – as well as the voices of current and future health professionals – was extremely valuable.’

Saleyha Ahsan, a PhD candidate in the Health System Design Group at Cambridge University and one of the authors of the forthcoming WISH report, remarked that current global armed conflicts have brought unprecedented attention to attacks on health systems. ‘The consequences of these attacks on health are the subject of international awareness. Our research will look at what is currently in place to both monitor these attacks and their impact, and to legally protect health during armed conflict.’

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