Ukraine: Millions at risk as health concerns exacerbate vulnerabilities

Polish Red Cross volunteers run a 24/7 health centre out of Przemysl train station in southern Poland to assist those who are fleeing the conflict in Ukraine

Polish Red Cross volunteers run a 24/7 health centre out of Przemysl train station in southern Poland to assist people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine

Photo: IFRC/Anette Selmer-Andresen

Budapest/Geneva, 10 March 2022 – As the conflict continues in Ukraine and a cold front descends, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warns of the dire health - including the spread of COVID-19 - and mental health consequences for millions of people both inside and outside of the country. 

The fighting in Ukraine has continued for two weeks and no one has been left unscathed. An estimated 18 million people – a third of the country’s population – will need humanitarian assistance, and more than 2.3 million people have fled to neighbouring countries. As the lives of millions are being upended, there is a real concern of diseases spreading, pre-existing health conditions worsening and mental health concerns increasing.

“Many of the people affected were already vulnerable before the conflict and now face an even harsher situation as they are losing their homes and their livelihoods, being forced to seek shelter wherever they can or fleeing their country in search of safety. They urgently need food, water and shelter, but also emergency medical care, protective measures and psychosocial support to avert an even greater humanitarian catastrophe,” said Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, IFRC Regional Director for Europe.

At the Przemyśl railway station in Poland, a woman was crying and being comforted by a volunteer from the Polish Red Cross. When asked what had happened, she answered that she had spent the whole night and day waiting for the train from Ukraine that would bring her daughter to safety. The train had finally arrived, but her daughter had not.

People fleeing conflict often experience highly distressing situations, loss and trauma, which may impact their mental health and ability to cope. Psychosocial support will be needed in the days, weeks, and months to come.

In conflict settings, public health measures to prevent diseases from spreading become extremely challenging. People are forced to shelter in crowded spaces with limited sanitary conditions or access to basic health services, which increases the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases. The spread of COVID-19 is a particular concern as the vaccination rate in Ukraine is among the lowest in Europe with only one-third of the population having received the first dose. Ukraine also has one of the highest rates of multidrug resistant tuberculosis in the world.

Adding to what is already a desperate situation, temperatures are dropping below freezing. There is an urgent need for warm clothing and adequate shelter to shield people in temporary locations and those who are queuing at the borders from the elements, the majority of whom are women, children and older people.

“Our Red Cross and Red Crescent teams in Ukraine and neighbouring countries are doing their utmost to support anyone in need, in particular those who are most at-risk including unaccompanied minors, single parent households, older people, and people with disabilities. They have the full support of IFRC and our global network, but more funding is desperately needed as millions of lives are at stake. Even if the armed conflict was to end tomorrow, the humanitarian consequences will be felt for years to come,” said Bischoff Ebbesen.

Notes to editors

In Ukraine, Red Cross teams are providing first aid and first aid training, helping in reception centres and to transport people to safety, and distributing relief items, including warm clothes. Despite the mortal danger they themselves are under, 3,000 new local volunteers have stepped up to support their neighbours.

In Hungary, Red Cross teams are operating three health service points at the border. They are also running reception and collection centres where they are welcoming people crossing from Ukraine and distributing relief goods.

In Poland, where 60 per cent (more than a million) of people from Ukraine are fleeing, the Polish Red Cross has activated more than 20 rescue teams, including approximately 450 medics, who are providing round-the-clock health care and psychosocial support at five of the eight border points as well as in major cities.

In Moldova, volunteers and staff from Moldova Red Cross have provided support to approximately 200,000 people who have crossed over from Ukraine. They are at all border crossing points offering hot tea, warm food, diapers, and personal protective equipment including face masks and sanitizer. Volunteers are also helping at reception centres, assisting with food preparation and playing with children.

In Russia, Red Cross teams have delivered 187 tonnes of aid including clothing, hygiene kits, baby products and household items. They are providing psychosocial support, have opened a mental health support hotline and, to date, have provided 756 consultations. More than 160 calls have come in to the restoring family links hotline.

In Romania, volunteers and staff from the local Red Cross are at various border crossings distributing food items, water, basic necessities, hygiene products, and thousands of SIM cards to people in need. The Red Cross is helping local authorities in equipping reception centres with tents, bedding, food and hygiene and baby items. Volunteers are also visiting placement centres, playing with children and helping local staff to prepare food and other necessary support.

In Slovakia the Red Cross is at all three of the country’s border crossings, where teams are providing services such as warming shelters, referrals to essential services, and first aid. As people are quickly moving on from the border area, the Red Cross is quickly scaling up support along the routes. This support includes psychosocial support and providing child-friendly spaces; social services, particularly referrals for services such as education, healthcare and registration for legal status; providing first aid, health assessments, referrals to clinical care and COVID-19 testing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

In Budapest: Kathy Mueller, [email protected], +1 226 376 4013

In Budapest: Nora Peter, [email protected], +36 70 953 7709

In Geneva: Caroline Haga, +358 50 598 0500, [email protected]

Read more about the IFRC's emergency appeal for Ukraine and impacted countries.

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Ukraine - Romania - Hungary - Croatia - Poland - Slovakia - Russia - Moldova - IFRC Newsroom