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A recent editorial in The Lancet issued a dire warning to the international medical community: medicine is a weapon of war in Syria. It is just the latest in a series of reports from across the Middle East on how medical care and medical professionals and facilities are being used to inflict politically-motivated violence.
Despite firm standards rooted in the Geneva Conventions to protect health facilities, health workers, and the patients served during armed conflict, and to enable health professionals to act consistently with their ethical obligations, assaults on and interference with health functions are all too common in war. Aside from the human toll they take, these attacks often compromise the ability to deliver care to populations in great need, impede efforts to reconstruct health systems after war, and lead to the flight of health workers whose presence in a time of great social stress is essential.
Last week, the World Health Organization’s Executive Board took an important step toward protecting the lives of health workers and patients in conflict zones by passing a resolution that calls on the WHO Director General for leadership in documenting evidence of attacks against health workers, facilities, and patients in situations of armed conflict. A coalition of international nongovernmental organizations, including IntraHealth International, sought this provision as part of its efforts to increase documentation of these attacks and to develop strategies for prevention. The lead sponsors of the resolution were the United States, the European Union, and Japan.