Ukraine: People "Don’t Know What the Next Months Hold"

Julie Remy/MSF

With winter having arrived in eastern Ukraine, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is continuing to support hospitals on both sides of the frontline, and expanding its psychological assistance for people in the hardest-hit areas. The needs remain high, because despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement in September, fighting has continued in several cities and towns, with particularly heavy clashes taking place over the past two weeks.

In towns along the frontline in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling is ongoing and, in some districts, people have no option but to stay in basements or World War II-era bomb shelters. Banks have closed and most people living in these areas do not have access to cash. Elderly and disabled people are particularly vulnerable and are finding it increasingly difficult to access health care and buy medicines.

The November 15 announcement by the Ukrainian government that it would withdraw social services from the rebel-controlled areas, including halting all pension payments, is further exacerbating the difficulties faced by the most vulnerable people this winter. State support will also be cut to hospitals in the region, and doctors, nurses, social workers and other state employees have been told to evacuate these areas.

“More than six months after the conflict began, hospitals in Donetsk and Luhansk region are buckling under the pressure of dealing with thousands of wounded and displaced people,” says Stéphane Prévost, MSF head of mission in Ukraine. “Medical supply lines have been severely disrupted and in some cases cut completely. Hospitals have exhausted their budgets for 2014 and many medical staff tell us they have not been paid for months.”

Medical Supplies

Since May, MSF teams have provided urgently needed medical supplies to 59 medical facilities on both sides of the frontline in Donetsk and Luhansk, enough to treat more than 10,250 wounded people. In response to critical shortages, we have also provided x-ray film, insulin, generators and surgical instruments to hospitals

In addition to the ongoing need for supplies to treat wounded patients, MSF teams have also identified significant gaps in other general health services such as dialysis, maternal health care and the treatment of chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/AIDS. The longer the conflict continues, the more gaps there will be in the supply of medications, which will primarily affect patients with chronic diseases. Even when drugs are available, few have access to cash to purchase them.

Psychological Support

“People living in the conflict zone, as well as those who fled to safer areas, are exposed to traumatic events, such as shelling, shootings, and the loss of family members and friends,” says Prevost. “The sudden onset of this conflict means that people suffered an acute sense of loss at the destruction of their way of life, homes, jobs, and social and family networks. People are extremely anxious; they just don’t know what the next months hold.”

MSF psychologists are providing mental health support to those affected by the conflict in several cities on both sides of the frontline. Our teams provide individual, group, and family psychological support that educates people about the emotional reactions likely to well up following traumatic events and gives them some practical tools to cope with extreme fear, anxiety, and nightmares. Since August, MSF teams have provided 764 individual and 60 group consultations to people affected by the conflict.

MSF psychologists are also running a training program for local psychologists, social workers and medical staff working throughout the affected region to help improve their skills and avoid burn-out. Since August, they have carried out 303 training sessions, on topics such as psychological first aid, stress management and dealing with aggressive patients.

In addition to psychological support, MSF has also provided more than 1,800 hygiene kits including essentials such as soap, dental supplies, towels, blankets, baby food and nappies to people displaced by the conflict who have taken shelter in areas near the conflict zone. MSF teams have also distributed 15,000 warm blankets to hospitals and people living in precarious conditions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in preparation for the winter.

Continuing TB Treatment in Prisons

MSF has been running a drug-resistant TB treatment program within the regional penitentiary system in Donetsk since 2011. Throughout the conflict, MSF has been making every effort to keep this project running and support patients to avoid treatment interruption, treatment failure and further drug-resistance. We are very concerned that the supply of medications to the penitentiary system in Donetsk is not functioning properly, raising concerns about the risk of prisoners developing further drug-resistance.

MSF psychologist Helena with Mishenko Aleksander Grigorievich, 57 years old, in Svitlodarsk Civil Hospital in Donetsk region. Aleksander is from Debaltsevo, a city of 25,000 people in Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The edge of the city hugs the frontline in the ongoing conflict between Ukrainian and rebel forces. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed on 5 September, people living on the outskirts of the city continue to experience shelling on an almost daily basis. Alexander was wounded on 13 October and is being treated in Svitlodarsk hospital. MSF has been supporting the hospital with urgently needed medical supplies for treating wounded patients. Aleksander is receiving counselling from an MSF psychologist to help him deal with the traumatic experience.
Julie Remy/MSF