SNF Discussions: Medicine in the Time of War
Friday June 24, 10:55, Lobby NLG
Christos Christou, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières
Christina Psarra, General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières Greece
Mobile surgical units, hospital trains, and technology like portable scanning devices are some of the tools at the doctors’ disposal in war zones. But first and foremost is access to patients, for which they negotiate with the armed forces.
Christina Psarra, General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières Greece, and Christos Christou, International President of the organization, detailed their experience in providing medical assistance and trying to save human lives in areas where humanity is completely lost—war zones.
"For more than 50 years, as a humanitarian organization, we have been trying to respond to conflicts around the world. Not all wars start with official declarations between combatants, nor do they all have the same trajectory. Sometimes they are not even called conflicts. We classify wars based on casualties," Psarra said at the beginning of her speech, noting that "what terrifies us is that we have five ongoing conflicts raging" and summarized the reality of people caught in war zones by saying “people have no access to basic services, health care systems collapse, people are fleeing their homes and there is a lot of trauma," further stressing the need for medical assistance in war conflict areas.
Christou referred to the devastating direct and indirect consequences of war, to the post-traumatic stress brought on by its horrors and the difficulties civilian populations face, explaining that the elements of war are timeless: pain and suffering—and they prevail in Ukraine as well. He then referred to Médecins Sans Frontières’s Mobile Unit Surgical Trailers—specially designed containers where surgeries can be carried out close to the conflict zone. "It's an idea we had in order to create more flexible conditions during hostilities. We move our tents and our teams can perform life-saving surgeries in temperature-controlled and hygienic conditions. The first time these units were used was in Mosul, Iraq, and then in Syria,” Christou explained, before mentioning that the use of portable ultrasound devices has been a “game changer” in terms of the quality of care delivered at the patients’ bedside. He also stressed the significance of telemedicine that assists medical and paramedical staff and the use of artificial intelligence to help in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
Psarra referred to the medical train used in Ukraine "so that people don't have to go to hospitals. We took on patients with chronic diseases on the train so that frontline hospitals could deal with people with war injuries. We have helped 600 people in 24 journeys—one journey lasts almost 30 hours.”
The critical importance of access for those providing assistance to patients was explicitly noted by both speakers. "We see people uprooted, leaving everything behind. The biggest challenge is to be present, to act quickly, to secure access to our patients," said Psarra. "I lost a patient in Cameroon because we couldn’t get to the hospital—we weren’t allowed", added Christos Christou, highlighting that access to patients in war zones is not a given, but a product of negotiation. As Psarra explained, "It is important for us, in all regions, to negotiate access. We have done this in Ukraine. We always negotiate access to patients with armed groups, we stay transparent, and we never pick sides."