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The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that the conflict in Ukraine could lead to increased COVID-19 transmission. 

Speaking at a Wednesday news briefing, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said  Ukraine had experienced a surge of cases before Russia’s invasion. 

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Low rates of testing, he said, mean there is likely to be a significant undetected transmission of the virus and – coupled with low vaccination coverage – the increased risk of “large numbers of people developing severe disease.”

“Mass population movements are likely to contribute further to transmission of COVID-19, potentially increasing pressure on health systems in neighboring countries,” Tedros noted. 

“Anytime you disrupt society like this, and put literally millions of people on the move, infectious diseases will exploit that,” Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said. 

“[People are] highly susceptible to the impacts … of being infected themselves, and it’s much more likely that disease will spread,” he noted.

Ryan said there’s “no question” that COVID-19 will exploit that “in the coming weeks.” 

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a  statement Thursday that 1 million people have fled Ukraine in just seven days.

“I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one,” he said. 

Tedros also tweeted that the WHO is providing health assistance to these refugees on the ground in Poland, Romania and Moldova.

The WHO has released $5.2M from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies and launched an appeal for $45 million for ongoing support in Ukraine and $12.5 million to support neighboring countries to care for refugees. 

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It estimates that 12 million people inside Ukraine will need relief and protection, while more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees may need the same in neighboring countries in the coming months.

COVID-19 transmission is not the only major health concern, and images show young children being treated in Kyiv hospital basements to escape the shelling. 

The WHO has called for critical medical supplies to safely reach those who need them, and Tedros noted that at least three major oxygen plants in Ukraine have closed. 

In a statement, Tedros and Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, wrote that life-saving medicinal oxygen supplies in Ukraine are “nearing a very dangerous point.” 

“Trucks are unable to transport oxygen supplies from plants to hospitals across the country, including the capital Kyiv. The majority of hospitals could exhaust their oxygen reserves within the next 24 hours,” the doctors said in a Feb. 27 statement. “Some have already run out. This puts thousands of lives at risk.”

Safe deliveries of zeolite – a crucial, mainly imported chemical product necessary to produce safe medical oxygen – are also needed. 

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“You need oxygen when you need it, you can’t be put on a waiting list for oxygen,” Ryan said Wednesday. 

The WHO said it is looking at solutions to import oxygen from regional networks. It is calling for donations through the WHO Foundation appeal page.

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