Humanitarian Health Action

Attacks on health care questions and answers

Health care is under attack

We witness with alarming frequency a lack of respect for the sanctity of health care and for international humanitarian law: patients are shot in their hospital beds; medical personnel are threatened, intimidated or attacked; vaccinators are shot; hospitals are bombed.

What are attacks on health care?

We consider attacks on health care to be any act of verbal or physical violence or obstruction or threat of violence that interferes with the availability, access and delivery of curative and/or preventive health services during emergencies.

Attacks on health can include bombings, explosions, looting, robbery, hijacking, shooting, gunfire, forced closure of facilities, violent search of facilities, fire, arson, military use, military takeover, chemical attack, cyberattack, abduction of health care workers, denial or delay of health services, assault, forcing staff to act against their ethics, execution, torture, violent demonstrations, administrative harassment, obstruction, sexual violence, psychological violence and threat of violence.

What are the consequences of attacks on health care?

Every attack on health care has a domino effect. Such attacks not only endanger health care providers; they also deprive people of urgently needed care when they need it most. And while the consequences of such attacks are as yet largely undocumented, they are presumed to be significant – negatively affecting short-term health care delivery as well as the longer-term health and well-being of affected populations, health systems, the health workforce, and ultimately our global public health goals.

Think of the years of education and experience lost with the early and tragic death of each health care worker. Think about the time and resources and dedication it takes to develop one doctor. Think of the resources required to rebuild one hospital. We cannot accept these losses as normal.

What information do we have on attacks on health care?

There is no publicly available source of consolidated information on attacks on health care in emergencies. For 2014 and 2015, WHO consolidated available data on individual attacks from open sources and found:

  • 594 reported attacks in 19 countries facing emergencies
  • 959 deaths, 1561 injuries
  • 63% against health care facilities; and 26% against health care workers
  • 62% of the attacks intentionally targeted health care.

While we recognize that these numbers are not comprehensive, they are a first attempt to provide a consolidated global view of attacks on health care in emergency settings and they serve to highlight the alarming frequency of attacks over the past two year.

Is there sufficient reporting of attacks on health care?

We believe there is considerable under reporting--most likely due to limited awareness of the possibility, means and use of reporting, perceptions of the usefulness of reporting, limited resources and time, fear of reporting, complexity and limitations of existing reporting systems, lack of standardized definitions for use in data collection, and cultural perceptions of violence.

What additional information do we need?

We need a more standardized approach to gathering and sharing information on attacks on health care and their consequences to health service delivery so that the information that is being collected is comparable. The most significant knowledge gap is the consequences of attacks on health care delivery, on the health of affected populations, on health systems, on the health workforce, and on longer-term public health. This is a priority for data collection moving forward.

Quantitative and qualitative information would help us. A combination of quantitative and qualitative information will help us to understand the extent and nature of the problem and to identify and implement concrete actions to reduce the risk and impact of attacks during emergencies.

Where is WHO with developing methods for data collection as per WHA Resolution 65.20?

WHO has developed and tested a new method in some locations; however it is not yet ready for publication. WHO aims to collect and share data on attacks on health care in emergency settings as part of its standard package of information collection and analysis within the new emergency programme. This will depend largely on the resources and capacities available to WHO going forward.

What can be done to stop attacks on health care?

Priority actions include the following:

  • Gather and consolidate comparable data; establish national registries
  • Document the consequences of attacks to health care delivery and public health
  • Establish national legislation to uphold International Humanitarian Law
  • Implement risk reduction measures, including through WHO’s Safe Hospitals Programme
  • Engage communities in protecting health care
  • Inform emergency response plans with security risk analysis
  • Document and apply good practices, including the recommendations of ICRC’s Health Care in Danger (HCiD) project
  • Promote and apply ethical principles in health care delivery
  • Speak out and advocate with zero-tolerance

What about the new Security Council Resolution 2286?

The Security Council 2286 that was unanimously adopted on May 3rd sends a strong message around the world that health care must be protected during conflict.

At the same time, we must remember that this is only part of the solution. We must remember that violence to health care is not only in conflict settings. Remember the health care workers who have been killed while working to eradicate the crippling disease of polio, or those who died from violence during the Ebola response. We also must think beyond the “wounded and sick” to all those who need health care—women giving birth and children needing vaccinations.

What is WHO doing about attacks on health care?

WHO is gathering and sharing information; advocating to build momentum for change; and helping to identify and promote good practice to reduce the risk of attacks.