Ukrainian doctors on frontline in COVID-19 fight

A new virus has caught medical professionals by surprise, forcing them to work in danger to save others' lives.

UNICEF
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UNICEF
11 June 2020

"There are 100-106 patients per doctor in my department. It reminds me of the first days of the conflict in Ukraine. When we didn't know what to expect but were at the forefront anyway," says Dr Olha Kobevko, an infectious disease specialist from Chernivtsi.

 

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At the end of February 2020, the first patient with COVID-19 in Ukraine was diagnosed in the Chernivtsi oblast in southwestern Ukraine, where doctor Kobevko works. 

Moreover, it was in Chernivtsi that doctors first encountered a severe course of COVID-19 in a child. Their little patient required mechanical ventilation support from the first days after being diagnosed with coronavirus.

 

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"For two weeks, we spent every minute and every hour fighting for her life. We made every effort to save this child. It was a great joy when we managed to get improvement in her health and remove a ventilator. Now the child is gradually recovering and can already be with her mother," says Dr Oksana Znak, deputy head of Chernivtsi regional children's clinical hospital.

 

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As of 4 June, 297 children out of 1829 diagnosed with COVID-19 required hospitalization. According to doctor Znak, COVID-19 in children is usually mild. This severe case was a big surprise for doctors.

"We didn't expect that children could be at risk of having severe coronavirus disease. We had several children in intensive care during this time. Still, the severity of their condition was caused not by COVID-19 but the underlying disease. In this case, it was a healthy child who contracted the coronavirus and had such a severe course," the doctor says.

 

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Health care professionals now have to study and work at the same time. "It's a new disease. We don't know how it will proceed, how children will respond to treatment. We are innovators, we try what method of treatment will be effective and consult a lot with colleagues," says Dr Znak. Together with co-workers, she studies and shares her experience in treating COVID-19 with other health professionals in Ukraine and abroad.

 

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Besides, the doctor admits that health professionals are often at risk of contracting COVID-19, so they try to protect themselves. Their health and whether they can help their patients depend on their safety.

Despite efforts to protect themselves, healthcare workers are still at increased risk. Twenty per cent of Ukraine coronavirus cases are healthcare professionals. That's 4,888 out of 25,411 cases, as of 4 June. Thirty-nine healthcare workers died of complications related to COVID-19.

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Ukrainian healthcare workers are at double risk. They face threats not only because of the close contact with COVID-19 patients but also because of the lack of personal protective equipment and the low level of testing.

 

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The absence of wide-scale testing, tracing of patients' contacts, and compliance with isolation measures pose significant challenges for a successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine. Lack of personal protective equipment leads to health workers being sick.

 

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UNICEF tries to support Ukrainian healthcare professionals. In April 2020, UNICEF procured hygiene supplies, medical and personal protective equipment for hospitals in eastern Ukraine. Close cooperation with the private sector in Ukraine has led to the provision of nearly US $500,000 worth of assistance. Together with partners, UNICEF also launched a solidarity campaign addressing stigma and social inclusion for COVID-19 first-line responders and affected families.

"I hope to God that I won't get sick. It is difficult to look at all this, especially at colleagues who fell ill and are on the verge of life and death. It's just awful. We work and pray to God that all will be well. So far, we managed to settle all this and help patients with both severe and mild COVID-19. Thanks to volunteers, we have protective clothing. We work because no one but us will do the job," says Dr Ivan Venzhynovych, a therapist working in the infectious diseases department in Pochaiv.

 

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Pochaiv is a small town in the Ternopil oblast in western Ukraine that has become the epicentre of COVID-19. On 22 April, local authorities imposed a ban on entry and exit from the city due to a sharp increase in the coronavirus cases.

 

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Anesthesiologist from Pochaiv Dr Andrii Karpiychuk says that he is not afraid to work in such conditions: "The fear passed after the first time I crossed the threshold and put on protective clothing. It was left behind." 

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Another doctor from Chernivtsi, Dr Konstyantyn Dronyk, says that they simply do not have time to be afraid. "In fact, we have such a pace and workload in our department that we never have time to think about it," says the doctor.

 

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Doctor Dronyk leads the intensive care department at the Chernivtsi regional clinical hospital. This hospital has the largest number of COVID-19 patients in the region. "Of course, it was scary at first. However, the farther you are from the epicentre, the greater the panic is. If you work, you forget about it. Our job is to save people. Everything else doesn't matter."

UNICEF continues to support health care institutions in Ukraine with critical supplies in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This assistance is helping patients with severe respiratory disorders, and doctors who are working in hazardous environments.

UNICEF is currently appealing for US $23,000,000 for COVID-19 response in Ukraine in addition to an existing humanitarian appeal of US $9,800,000 to support families with children in the conflict-affected East.

 

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