When health-care workers die

Delivering care in dangerous places

Recently, we were asked about our interest in being part of a public health initiative in Iraq. It seemed too soon and too dangerous a place, even though one of our faculty members traveled there over Christmas. I worry when our faculty members and students want to go to some of the world’s most dangerous places. They want to protect others, but I want to protect them.

Earlier today, I heard from Evan Russell, a committed, really smart MD/PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-founder of Empowerment Health. Evan and I met a few years ago when he visited UNC. He is very concerned about the way health-care delivery has been politicized in some parts of the world, such as in Afghanistan, putting health care workers at extreme risk.

Last year, ten deans of schools of public health, including me, signed a letter voicing serious concerns about CIA actions in Pakistan. In order to get information about the Bin Laden family, the CIA created a sham polio vaccine campaign, jeopardizing the lives of workers who went from village to village vaccinating people. Several of those workers died subsequently. It is outrageous to think of turning a lifesaving anti-polio campaign into a farce, especially when Pakistan is one of the very few places in the world where polio is still a health threat. This is just one example of many cases in which health-care workers became casualties in hostile operations when they were just trying to do their jobs in some of the most dangerous places on earth.

Russell wrote about the tragic death of a colleague, Jerry Umanos, MD, a pediatrician who had been doctoring in Afghanistan for 12 years. He was killed April 24 outside the hospital where he’d saved many lives. It’s unbearably poignant that a physician would be killed in a country where health services have crumbled and his services are so needed.

From 2003-2013, 965 humanitarian workers were murdered in the line of duty. The jobs have gotten even more dangerous in the last few years. If health-care workers cannot feel safe and be protected even in some of the most dangerous places on earth, what will happen to the people in those places? Protection won’t come from guns alone but from multiple forces coalescing to assure the safety of these true heroes. Neither we nor our government should turn our backs on these doctors (and nurses and other health-care professionals). The world needs them.

I don’t have the answers but we need to find them … now. Barbara

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