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FACTBOX-Health workers and patients under fire

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 7 Dec 2011 15:38 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) - Doctors have launched a live blog to highlight reports of attacks on medical workers, patients and health services in conflict zones. The initiative comes at a time when health workers are increasingly targeted during hostilities. Below is a small snapshot of some recent attacks on healthcare workers around the world.

The Iraqi health ministry estimates more than 625 medical personnel were killed between 2003 and 2008. In 2007 many doctors in Iraq were deliberately targeted in a spate of killings. Hundreds more have received death threats or been kidnapped and over half the country’s doctors have fled abroad. Many of those who stayed behind live in their hospitals to avoid the dangerous journey home.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides warring parties in a conflict with the co-ordinates of hospitals so that they are not mistakenly hit. But during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war rights groups say the government used these co-ordinates to deliberately target hospitals treating Tamils. The last functioning hospital in the war-torn north was shelled in February 2009, killing and wounding many of the 500 patients.

Soldiers entered a hospital in Wardak province one night in September 2009. They rounded up staff and ordered them to report the presence of enemy fighters seeking treatment. When the staff refused, citing medical ethics, the soldiers threatened them at gunpoint, saying they would be killed if they did not comply. Several people quit their jobs after this, too afraid to return to work. More generally, vehicles carrying wounded people for treatment often get held up for hours at checkpoint queues. Violence has also hampered polio vaccination campaigns.

The military took over Salmaniya referral hospital in early 2011 after it was perceived to support anti-government protesters. A Bahrain military court has since sentenced 20 doctors and nurses who treated protesters to between five and 15 years in prison. The doctors were among dozens of medical staff arrested during the pro-democracy demonstrations. They accused the government of staging the trial to stop them telling Bahrainis what they witnessed during the protests. The medics say they were subjected to physical and psychological abuse after being arrested.   

In 2009, a bomb at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu killed two doctors and 18 others including newly qualified medical students. This was only the second batch of medical graduates to emerge in the last 20 years, depriving the Somali people of desperately needed doctors. Doctors have been kidnapped inside the country and also in a refugee camp for Somalis over the border in Kenya.

In January 2009, ICRC and Palestine Red Crescent workers found four young children crouched beside the bodies of their mothers in a house that had been shelled four days earlier. Ambulance teams had not been permitted to reach the victims after the attack. By the time they arrived, 12 corpses lay on the floor and the children were too weak to stand. Soldiers at a nearby checkpoint offered no assistance and ordered the ambulances to turn back but they disobeyed. More generally, hospitals have been used as a cover during inter-Palestinian violence, putting medics and patients at risk of getting caught in crossfire.

Gunmen dressed as police officers entered Jinnah Hospital in Lahore in June 2010 and opened fire indiscriminately, killing medical staff, visitors and security guards. They mounted the assault to release a wounded militant who had been captured after a mosque bombing that killed over 80 worshippers. Earlier, in February 2010, an explosion was set off at a hospital in Karachi which was treating survivors of an earlier sectarian attack on a bus carrying members of a minority sect.

Sources: ICRC, International Health Protection Initiative, Reuters

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