14 October 2011

Assertive action is needed to protect health workers in political hotspots, says the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), particularly in light of the situation in Bahrain where health workers have been imprisoned for treating pro-democracy protestors.

“They have been charged with conspiring against the Bahraini Government when in fact they were undertaking their ethical obligation to treat all patients without regard to politics, race or religion,” says NZMA Deputy Chair Dr Mark Peterson.

The health workers have said that the charges are fabricated and that they were forced to confess under torture.

In an article published in today’s New Zealand Medical Journal, the authors write that the treatment of the Bahraini health workers is in breach of the principle of medical neutrality. NZMA Chair Dr Paul Ockelford and Dr Brendan Gray, the Head of Medicolegal Services at the Medical Protection Society and a member of the New Zealand Committee for the Dissemination of Humanitarian Law, say that violence against healthcare workers is a serious humanitarian challenge in today’s world.

“Studies show an increasing incidence of serious attacks on health workers and there is a blatant disregard for the ethical obligations of health professionals to provide care to all patients, irrespective of their affiliation.”

The authors say that more must be done to ensure the wounded have timely access to healthcare and urge all health professionals to build ‘a community of concern’ by supporting organisations such as the Red Cross and Physicians for Human Rights.

The NZMA has shown leadership on this issue in New Zealand by writing to the World Medical Association (WMA) calling for more assertive protest against the treatment of the Bahraini health workers.

“We also wrote to Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice and other government departments expressing our concern that these health professionals appear to have been brought to trial solely because of their efforts to provide medical assistance to people injured by government security forces. We have called for their immediate release.”

Dr Peterson says that the WMA and the World Health Organization have an obligation to be more proactive about the increasing acts of violence against physicians and other health workers.

“There is an urgent need for improved information gathering to better understand and respond to these acts of violence in countries experiencing political conflict. We need to know who is being attacked and who is responsible.”

The health workers have been given prison sentences of between five and 15 years.

The United Nations has called for the release of the Bahraini health workers.