Ukraine: Health crisis in Mariupol

Mariupol - March 03, 2022

March 11, 2022—The humanitarian situation in Mariupol is extremely dire, as the Ukrainian city is bombarded, aid cannot enter and civilians cannot safely flee. Kate White, an emergency manager for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Geneva, gave the following statement today:

In Mariupol, our teams report that many families do not have enough water, food and medicine. For small children this can be particularly dangerous. Unlike adults, their bodies cannot withstand wide fluctuations in food and water intake, and so they are at high risk of dehydration. Contaminated water can also cause diarrhea, which in turn can set in motion a vicious circle, with diarrhea leading to further dehydration. In extreme situations, this can also result in death.

Poor water quality can also lead to a number of other diseases including skin infections and scabies. On top of this, in Mariupol people are having to live in crowded conditions as they shelter from shelling and explosions and are unable to follow basic hygiene measures. This could lead to respiratory tract infections and the spread of COVID-19.

Low and poor water supply can also cause outbreaks of communicable diseases. We are particularly worried about cholera. Mariupol saw an outbreak of cholera in 2011, so we know that the bacteria which causes cholera is present in the region.  Moreover, Ukraine has had low vaccination coverage, so the risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases including measles and polio spreading is also high.

Because there is lack of fuel, people are having to use wood for cooking in houses that are not built for this. So, the likelihood of fires is high, and people are at risk of incurring severe burns and suffering from respiratory illnesses. In a context where the health system has literally collapsed, this could be fatal.

Moreover, with active warfare ongoing, people are not able to move freely, which severely limits their ability to seek health care. When peoples’ freedom, safety and their ability to seek timely health care is compromised, all this goes against the laws of war, which establish the right of civilians to seek safety and health care.

More broadly, eastern Ukraine has a high proportion of elderly people as a direct consequence of the eight-year conflict. Many young people fled when war broke out in 2014. Elderly people are the least mobile so more likely to stay on.  Many have underlying health conditions including hypertension and diabetes. Even if we don’t see an immediate impact on elderly people, we know this will appear.

The war has disrupted community structures, which have been essential in supporting health care needs of elderly people. We had established a network of health volunteers who supported people to get timely diagnoses and treatment as well as help with getting medicines. Because of active fighting, many community health workers have left the region or are in hiding. So, this will only increase the sense of isolation among the elderly.

In Mariupol today, there is hardly any safe place and the sound of gunfire, shelling and aerial bombardment is ever present. Very often, mental health consequences take years to manifest but also require immediate assistance. We will have to deal with the mental health impact of this war on a massive scale for years.

MSF has been working in Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine for over eight years. Immediately before war broke out in late February, MSF teams based out of Mariupol were working with community volunteers to improve access to health care for remote, isolated populations. MSF also supported new approaches to de-centralize mental health care. Since the war began, MSF has provided donations of trauma kits to several hospitals in eastern Ukraine and is trying to ensure continuity of care of patients, especially elderly people, for whom disruptions in treatment can prove life-threatening.