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Nurse leader condemns ‘rising’ attacks on nurses in warzones

The number of nurses, other healthcare workers, and hospitals being targeted in conflict zones around the world is on the rise, a senior leader at the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has claimed.

The global nursing body has called for an end to what its chief executive, Howard Catton, described as the “normalisation” of health workers being targeted during wars all over the world.

“At best it feels as though these obligations are being ignored and, at worst, that targeting health care staff and facilities has become part of military strategies”

Howard Catton

Speaking at the World Health Organization WHO) executive board meeting in Geneva last week, Mr Catton called on global leaders to denounce it in the “strongest possible terms”.

Mr Catton said an increase in the number and severity of armed conflicts around the world has led to nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers being targeted more and more.

He pointed to the ongoing conflicts in Myanmar, Ukraine and Gaza. In all three of these countries, there have been reports of healthcare workers and facilities being targeted.

For example, The Lancet quoted accounts from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which started in February 2022, reporting “many” hospitals being targeted deliberately with clinical staff being attacked.

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In the Myanmar Civil War, which has raged since May 2021 after a military coup, more than 1,000 attacks have been carried out on hospitals and health workers, according to The Telegraph.

Meanwhile, Israel’s invasion of Gaza following the attack by Hamas on October 7 2023 has seen more than 700 incidents of “violence against or obstruction of access to healthcare”, and more than 130 healthcare staff killed, according to reports in the British Medical Journal.

Mr Catton said these, and other, conflicts were a “grave cause for concern”, and called for the protection of nurses and health facilities in conflict zones at the WHO meeting.

The chief executive of the ICN, a federation of 130 national nursing associations, further reiterated calls for world powers to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid.

“Over the last few years, we have seen the world engulfed in many more protracted wars and conflicts, and the signs for 2024 are ominous,” said Mr Catton after the meeting.

“We approach the third anniversary of the conflict in Myanmar, the second anniversary of the Ukraine war, and it is more than 100 days since the start of the conflict in Gaza.

“Yet despite the fact that the protection of and respect for health care facilities and staff is enshrined in international humanitarian law, in many parts of the world, at best it feels as though these obligations are being ignored and at worst that targeting health care staff and facilities has become part of military strategies.”

He added that health facilities were protected by the Geneva Convention, but that some militaries have ignored that.

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Mr Catton further said: “[Health workers] continue to be subjected to violence and attacks, and I have to say it feels as though such situations are becoming normalised, which is totally unacceptable.

“ICN again calls on international organizations and all political leaders to condemn outright the normalization of these deplorable acts.”

The WHO’s 154th session also touched on the broader health priorities for the world, including Covid-19, antimicrobial resistance, climate change and universal health.

Mr Catton added: “We know that nurses support health and healing, which are fundamental building blocks for peace.

“When nurses treat ill health, they frequently identify and address risk factors for conflict, including poverty, exclusion and a lack of respect for people’s rights.

“Nurses’ work helps to create social cohesion and deliver social justice, which are vital ingredients for peace and stability. Investing in nurses is an investment for health, peace and a better future for everyone.”

Mr Catton also took the opportunity to speak about the “health harms” which international recruitment, when unrestricted, can cause.

The meeting also heard from health leaders, and representatives of governments, from around the world on a variety of health matters.

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who opened the meeting, said 2024 would be a “defining year” for global health.

He spoke at length about improving the world’s preparedness for the next pandemic.

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