Health workers around the world are nearing breaking point, WHO warns

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The World Health Organization on Thursday urged countries to do more to protect healthcare workers, saying they are increasingly plagued by anxiety, burnout, disease and death on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency estimates that 115,500 healthcare workers worldwide died from Covid-19 between January 2020 and May 2021, the intermediate scenario of its larger estimate of 80,000 to 180,000 deaths during this period.

Speaking at a WHO briefing on Thursday, Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses, said the world had entered the pandemic with a shortage of nurses and the problem was only getting worse by the stress of the pandemic.

“There is another crisis brewing,” she said, “and it is a shortage of healthcare workers.”

To combat the problem, the WHO has called on governments to step up their collection of data on Covid infections and deaths among healthcare workers and to speed up the vaccination of these workers.

On average, two in five health workers had been fully immunized by September, according to WHO data from 119 countries, but that included less than one in 10 health workers in Africa and the Western Pacific region. In contrast, 80 percent of health workers in 22 mostly high-income countries had been immunized.

Ms Kennedy pointed to a major problem women face when working in healthcare facilities: personal protective equipment designed by men. “And yet,” she noted, 90% of nurses are women. Seventy percent of all health care workers are women.

WHO leaders also highlighted the inequality in the global distribution of vaccines and called on rich countries to take the lead in tackling the problem.

The agency’s chief executive, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said it was more than 10 months since the first vaccines were approved and the lack of vaccinations for millions of health workers was “an act of accusation against the countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines.

High- and upper-middle-income countries administered almost half the number of boosters than the total number of doses given in low-income countries, he said.

To meet global immunization goals, said Dr Tedros, “the barrier is not production. The barriers are politics and profit.

Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister who is now the WHO Ambassador for Global Health Funding, said the goal of vaccinating 40 percent of adults worldwide by December, which was put forward last month at the Covid-19 World Summit led by President Biden, had “no chance” of being met without action from rich countries.

Mr Brown said 240 million doses of the vaccine were unused in the West, citing figures from Airfinity, a data research agency. He added that the number of unused doses is expected to reach 600 million by the end of December. A shortage of 500 million doses in countries of the South could be alleviated by transporting stocks of vaccines to countries in need and by changing the delivery contract. Up to 100 million doses could go past their expiration date and end up being destroyed, he said.

Ahead of the Group of 20 summit which begins in Rome on October 30, Western leaders are expected to work out a vaccine transfer plan, Brown said, and other G20 countries may follow suit.


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