Healthcare in Syria a target of war - expert comment

Over 800 medical personnel have been killed in Syria since March 2011 with nearly 200 attacks on health facilities in 2016 alone, according to a new study published in The Lancet.

Led by the Faculty of Health Sciences, American University of Beirut, the study brings together data from multiple sources to analyse the impact of the crisis on health workers. Published to mark the sixth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, it describes the extent to which health has been weaponised in the conflict, in what human rights organisations have described as a war-crime strategy.

The authors say the conflict has revealed serious shortcomings of global governance and call for a new role for global health organisations in responding to health needs in conflicts.

So is this situation unique to Syria? And what more can be done to protect healthcare as medical services become targets of war?

Dr Karl Blanchet, Director of the Health in Humanitarian Crises Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "This is an important study which raises a very serious but undocumented and under-reported issue. The daily work of thousands of courageous health and relief workers in conflict-affected areas is being jeopardised.

 "Unfortunately Syria is just the tip of the iceberg. In Afghanistan and Yemen today, international humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) report attacks on health facilities every week. Patients have been shot while travelling in ambulances in Colombia, ambulances are used in suicide attacks in Afghanistan, doctors are murdered in Somalia, and hospitals bombed in Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya.

"The Health in Humanitarian Crises Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is joining the international campaigns launched by ICRC and MSF, and is calling for consolidated and systematic data collection and reporting on attacks on health facilities and personnel. Stronger national and international legislation to protect healthcare workers during armed conflicts, combined with an awareness campaign amongst combatants on International Humanitarian Law, is urgently needed.

"Finally, we also want to make the case for reinforcing medical ethics and the humanitarian principles of impartiality, to ensure that patients are not refused access to healthcare."