WHO says making contingency plans for possible 'chemical assaults' in Ukraine

The World Health Organisation logo is pictured at the entrance of the WHO building, in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec 20, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

GENEVA — The World Health Organisation's European head said on Thursday (April 7) that the body was preparing for possible "chemical assaults" in Ukraine, in a sign it is taking warnings that have emerged from both the West and Moscow seriously.

"Given the uncertainties of the current situation, there are no assurances that the war will not get worse," Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said during a briefing from Lviv, Ukraine.

"WHO is considering all scenarios and making contingencies for different situations that could afflict the people of Ukraine, from the continued treatment of mass casualties, to chemical assaults," he said.

He declined to give further details about the preparations. In the same briefing, delayed due to an air raid siren, WHO incident director Heather Papowitz said Ukraine is an industrial country with "chemical hazards" throughout that can be hit by different assaults.

Western officials have repeatedly voiced fears that Russia may use chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, with risks of spillover effects beyond the country, without offering proof.

Russia's defence ministry has accused Kyiv, without providing evidence, of planning a chemical attack against its own people in order to accuse Moscow of using chemical weapons in the invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb 24.

Asked directly about a possible Russian chemical attack on Ukraine, Kluge said: "The short answer is that WHO is preparing for any eventuality within our mandate."

Taking away hope

A WHO database showed that there have been 91 attacks on Ukraine health care infrastructure resulting in 73 deaths since the invasion began, without saying who was responsible. Medical charity MSF witnessed a hospital bombing this week. 

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Jarno Habicht, Head of the WHO Ukraine office, said this was taking away people's hope, "because hospitals and health care facilities are the places where people go to be treated and healed."

Papowitz said she expected more deaths from illnesses that would ordinarily be easy to treat such as pneumonia and diarrhoea in children.

Kluge also said the WHO was coordinating with the European Union to triage patients arriving from Ukraine and arranging for them to be sent on for treatment within Europe.