“War is a Public Health Crisis”: Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from COVID-19

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows no sign of relenting, ordinary citizens are in the crosshairs of an escalating humanitarian disaster. In the first week since Russian forces pushed into the country from the north, east, and south, Ukrainians have fled to neighboring Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia in staggering numbers. In total, the first week of the crisis has made refugees of more than 1 million Ukrainians. As of March 1, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees projects that that number could climb as high as 4 million as the conflict unfolds.

When bombs are falling on residential neighborhoods, survival and safety take on an immediacy that overshadows peacetime public health concerns. “War is a public health crisis,” says Jan Carney, MD, MPH, the associate dean for public health and health policy and a professor of medicine at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont

“War suddenly and dramatically changes the pandemic landscape.”

Jan K. Carney, MD, MPH

The mass migration of millions of people under lethal duress is always a public health crisis – and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents additional complications. “War suddenly and dramatically changes the pandemic landscape,” Carney recently told Healthline in “How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Cause a COVID-19 Spike in Europe.” “People pick up and take whatever they can take with them. And where do they go? What about food, water, and safety – and access to medications and healthcare if they’re sick.”

At the same time families are sheltering in crowded subways tunnels or refugee camps, “conditions where infection can more easily spread,” according to Carney, only about 35% of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. “Pandemic progress, for many people, may come to an immediate halt. The consequences of war can worsen pandemic spread and delay progress in preventing infection for thousands, if not millions, of people,” Carney warns.

“Wherever their safe destination, I hope the humanitarian response also includes vaccination against the virus.” 

Dr. Jan Carney

Mental health is another public health concern related to the Russian invasion in Ukraine and resulting refugee crisis. One glance at the media coverage of decimated neighborhoods, family separations, and the machinery of war advancing deeper into the country conveys the nightmare conditions that have taken over everyday life in Ukraine.

“The immediate stress is profound – but also in the long term, this is traumatic on families. They’ve lost their social roots, left their homes, have no access to social support, and lost their healthcare. Risks from leaving home for thousands – or millions – of people creates risks for infectious diseases, extreme stress, and enduring mental health threats from loss of family and community,” Carney says.

In a time of cascading crises, Carney tells Healthline.com that her hope is for the international community to step in with support to address the most urgent health and social needs – and with readily available vaccines against COVID-19. “Vaccines,” she says, “are the foundation of our long-term success against the pandemic.”

Watch a recent information session with Dr. Carney where she discusses the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

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