Expert gathering aims to make war zone hospitals safer

Syria, 2013. The main hospital in Aleppo, after a bombing raid. © ICRC / Ricardo Garcia Vilanov

Syria, 2013. The main hospital in Aleppo, after a bombing raid. © ICRC / Ricardo Garcia Vilanov

Sitting in Washington DC, where discussions about access to health care focus mainly on politics and affordability, it's easy to forget that "access to health care" means something totally different in places like  SyriaSomalia and the Central African Republic where armed conflict has wreaked havoc on medical services and facilities, in particular.  This week, in the Canadian city of Ottawa, the ICRC and the Canadian Red Cross are co-hosting a first-of-a-kind workshop in North America focusing on ways to protect war zone hospitals and clinics from being deliberately targeted or looted, accidentally attacked, or indirectly affected by water, electricity, and supply cuts.

Around 60 international experts are taking part in the two-day gathering, which starts Wednesday and is part of a series of ICRC-led workshops focusing on different problems that plague or prevent the delivery of medical aid in war-torn countries.

"Violence against health care workers, their patients and health care facilities in armed conflicts is one of the most critical humanitarian problems today,” says Conrad Sauvé, the secretary general and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross.

Complex problem

Dr. Mark Steinbeck – a former war surgeon and current medical advisor to the ICRC's regional delegation for North America based in Washington DC – points out that it's also an extremely complex issue. 

"On one hand, there are some pretty simple measures that can be taken to protect hospitals, such as putting blast-proof sheeting on windows, sand-bagging back-up generators, and making sure the buildings are clearly identified if there's a threat of shelling or air strikes," says Dr. Steinbeck.  

But, he says there are other scenarios where the solutions aren't nearly as straight forward. 

"If a facility is at-risk of being bombed or attacked, common sense dictates that patients and doctors take shelter underground…But if a chemical weapon or poisonous gas is used that is heavier than air, the basement is the last place you want to move people. So what contingency plans can be made to deal with such a situation?" he asks.

"Or, if you place blast barriers around a clinic, do you risk inadvertently making it look like a bunker or a legitimate military target? What's the safer option?"

The Ottawa group will also look at a range of other issues from how health care facilities can be made more autonomous when it comes to services like water and electricity, and at the stresses, risks, and burdens that doctors and nurses face, and how to alleviate them.

The group's recommendations will be presented at a major conference in 2015 involving all States Party to the Geneva Conventions and the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

This week's discussions will culminate in a public panel on 27 September at Ottawa University, where participants will have the opportunity to engage with the experts on this broad topic.

By Anna Nelson, ICRC Spokesperson for North America & Intercross Editor

For more details and to register to attend in-person or watch the Live Stream webcast, click here.

Food for thought:

This excellent but deeply disturbing film shows what the situation is like in Somalia and other places where health care is in danger.

An op-ed in this week's Washington Post, by Samer Attar – a professor at Northwestern –paints a horrific picture of life as a doctor in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

This recent ICRC / MSF article (originally published by Al Jazeera) explains the scope of the problem.

The ICRC's official Health Care in Danger minisite

The ICRC's latest update on the forgotten crisis in Central African Republic.