Security measures for staff fighting health emergencies need to be stepped up urgently, a UN health agency top official said, after a frontline Ebola epidemic community worker was reportedly stabbed to death at home in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In Geneva, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said in his 25-year humanitarian career, violence carried out deliberately against health workers and hospitals had never been as bad.
The “overwhelming impact” was on local health workers, not international staff, Ryan told a Geneva Peace Week event, in his capacity as Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Despite the risks of working in insecure locations, “one doesn’t have a choice but to go, as the epidemic will spread and intensify like a fire if it’s not put out”, he said. “It puts our workers at the extreme edge of risk.”
This year there have been 862 reported attacks on healthcare workers and facilities from 10 countries, resulting in 173 deaths and 557 significant injuries. “And that is probably a massive under-estimation of the problem,” Ryan said.
Destroy a hospital and you destroy hope
Among the most shocking aspects of this growing trend for humanitarians was the effect on civilians, he added.
“One of the last hopes a community has in conflict is the ability to seek care for children or the injured. The destruction of a health care facility is more than destruction of a building; it tears the heart out of a community and it takes hope away from the community and as such its impact is much greater.”
In a joint UN-DRC Ministry of Health statement, both noted the victim – not officially named yet – also worked as a reporter at a community radio station in Lwemba and his partner was critically injured.
Two suspects were arrested and investigators are looking to see if the murder is linked to the ongoing Ebola response, they added.