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Global health experts are calling on the international community to defend medical neutrality in war zones — and are urging the United Nations to act when health care facilities are attacked.

There were at least 594 attacks on health care facilities in 2014 and 2015, with Syria taking the brunt of those attacks. The World Health Organization reports that those attacks killed 959 people and injured at least 1,561 others.

The Geneva Conventions — ratified by 196 countries — are intended to protect medical services for civilians in war zones. But in a new paper published Tuesday in the BMJ Global Health, experts say blatant violations of that code are going unpunished.


“War crimes have persisted with little or no definitive action by the international community to stem the tide,” the authors wrote.

The pace of hospital attacks has kept up in 2016, with at least 113 health care facilities in 17 countries hit in the first half of 2016.


Those strikes have a sweeping impact, the study’s authors said. Not only do the strikes harm patients and health care personnel, but they also make it difficult to provide care such as vaccinations and cancer screenings. Those issues will only be exacerbated as health care providers in war-torn areas are killed or flee for their safety.

“The effect of these attacks is enormous,” the authors stated. “An undermined health system results in needless suffering, increase in morbidity and mortality, and a breakdown in preventive care.”

The paper’s authors said they would like to see the UN Security Council provide protection for health care facilities in areas vulnerable to attack. Their other request for international leaders: engage governments and warring factions in a direct conversation about medical neutrality.

It’s not enough to just talk about the attacks any more, they concluded: “The international community needs to rise to the occasion and match action with words.”

The editorial was penned by public health researchers from the University of Memphis, King’s College London, and the Chicago-based Health Research and Educational Trust.