SPH Professor Urges International Community to Defend Medical Neutrality In War Zones in British Medical Journal Global Health Editorial

December 5, 2016 - Dr. Soumitra Bhuyan, assistant professor of Health Systems Management and Policy in the University of Memphis School of Public Health, is the lead author of an editorial urging the international community to defend medical neutrality in war zones and calls for the United Nations to act when health care facilities are attacked. The Geneva Conventions – ratified by 196 countries – are intended to protect medical services for civilians in war zones. The editorial was published recently in the British Medical Journal Global Health.

The International Humanitarian Law, which specifically promotes medical neutrality and protection of medical services for people in war zones, as set out in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Breaches of the law, which was modified in 1977 and 2005 to strengthen it further, are regarded as war crimes because of their impact on civilians and medical staff who have a duty of care to those wounded in war-torn countries.

The inaction dates back to the 1970s in Mozambique, and is still evident today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the editorial says. The destruction of healthcare facilities around the world shows no sign of abating. In 2015-16, 600 such attacks were recorded – 228 of them in Syria alone – killing 1,000 people and injuring more than 1,500 others.

According to the World Health Organization, 113 healthcare facilities in 17 countries were attacked in the first six months of 2016 alone. And as of the first week of October, every hospital in eastern Aleppo, Syria, has been hit at least once, with one of the main trauma hospitals hit four times within a five-day period. Since the war in Syria began, 654 doctors and nurses have died. The impact of these attacks is enormous, say the authors, outlining the psychological trauma for the survivors and the erosion of preventive healthcare such as vaccinations and infectious disease control. "The International Humanitarian Law is explicit and provides for the protection of patients, health facilities, health personnel and patients in times of war as long as they are not directly involved in hostilities," they write.

"The international community needs to rise to the occasion and match action with words by mandating the United Nations Security Council to provide protection for health facilities in war zones and enter into dialogue with government and warring groups to respect the principles of medical neutrality in conflict areas," they urge.

This means that the Security Council and governments of all nations need to develop punishments that would deter aggressors from further breaches of the legislation and educate armed forces personnel to respect medical neutrality and the Geneva Conventions, they say. The co-authors of the editorial were researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Health Research and Educational Trust of American Hospital Association. Bhuyan is an associate editor of British Medical Journal Global Health.

The article is online at http://gh.bmj.com/lookup/doi/10.1136/bmjgh-2016-000109.

Contact: Gabrielle Maxey