Could Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fuel the spread of Covid and other infectious diseases?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could lead to a surge of COVID-19 cases among civilians trapped in the war zone or fleeing to  neighboring countries as crowded conditions and a shortage of medical care take their toll, health agencies and experts say.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is still here. It will not stop because of conflict,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, adding that “remarkably, Ukraine has maintained its COVID-19 surveillance and response system so far.”

According to Jasarevic, the problems created by the war coupled with Ukraine’s low vaccination rate increase the risk of large numbers of people developing severe disease, which could be worsened by oxygen shortages.

Just ove a third of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated, he said, adding that countries accepting refugees will need to “scale up their surveillance for polio, measles and for COVID-19, to make sure we can catch any outbreaks before they spiral out of control.”

The WHO’s warning follows similar messages from agencies such as the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region, which warned last month that “war and armed conflicts forcibly displace people, creating additional public health problems throughout the displacement, flight and/or migration trajectory.”

Ukraine is “fertile ground for COVID transmission,” added Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He said that amid Ukraine’s low vaccination rate and “the whole situation of displacement and people being preoccupied with not being killed, COVID prevention is not the top priority, including for the public health services.”

Israel and other countries taking in Ukrainian refugees must not only vaccinate them against COVID but also be watchful for other medical issues, especially trauma, Davidovitch said.

Speaking to Haaretz from the Ukrainian border, Raphael Poch, a spokesman for the Israeli rescue service United Hatzalah, said little to no precautions were being taken against the pandemic as people focused on food and shelter.

“We haven’t seen pretty much anyone wearing masks at all here,” he said, adding that three of 150 of his volunteers who have spent time in refugee camps have contracted COVID.

According to the Jewish Agency, all Ukrainian refugees considered eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return will have full health insurance from the moment they land in Israel until the examination of their case is complete. Those who are not insured will be able to receive care at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.

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