Ukrainian Refugees Facing Major Health Risks

Frigid temperatures, dwindling supplies, crowded borders and damaged infrastructure are fueling the humanitarian crisis.

Ukrainians standing amid destruction in Kyiv during Russian invasion

Medically reviewed in March 2022

Updated on March 3, 2022

Photo credit: Sasha Maksymenko

More than two million Ukrainians have abandoned their homes and flooded the borders of Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and other neighboring countries over the course of just one week. Countless more have been displaced within the country since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UN agency warns the armed conflict may result in the largest refugee crisis Europe has seen in 100 years. The mass exodus has been complicated by freezing conditions, the COVID pandemic, and a range of other health risks.

“As a result of President Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a country of 44 million people is now on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe,” said British Ambassador to the UN Barbara Woodward during a February 28 emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

Exposure to frigid temperatures

Current temperatures in and around Ukraine are in the mid to low 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and can drop into the 20s overnight. Bordering countries, like Poland, have been openly accepting refugees but the sheer number of people seeking asylum has created lines that stretch for miles. In some cases, refugees are waiting for days to be processed since the volume of arrivals is outstripping available resources and personnel.

Some refugees have been forced to make their way by foot, reportedly walking for dozens of miles.

When exposed to cold temperatures for a prolonged time the body begins to lose heat more quickly than it can be generated. This can result in hypothermia, or a body temperature that is below normal. Early on, this can make it harder for people to think clearly. It can also lead to fatigue, loss of coordination and confusion. If left untreated, it can affect breathing and lead to more serious consequences.

Stalled vaccination efforts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has interrupted the country’s efforts to contain a polio outbreak and slow the spread of COVID.

Crowded conditions and long lines at refugee stations and shelters are increasing the risk that communicable diseases, including COVID, will spread. Since mid-January, Ukraine has been facing its fifth COVID wave, due to Omicron. As of February 24, the reported seven-day average for new infections was 23,739. Just 20 days earlier, the number of daily infections hit a record high of 43,778. Ukraine’s Omicron wave was projected to last until the beginning of April, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The country’s vaccination program has been disrupted by the armed conflict. As of February 25, only about 34 percent of Ukraine’s population are fully immunized—the lowest vaccination rate in Europe, OECD reports.

Meanwhile, the polio outbreak in Ukraine, which predates the Russian invasion, is also the result of low immunization rates in the country. It was confirmed in October 2021 when a toddler was diagnosed after developing acute flaccid paralysis. Since then, at least 20 more children were diagnosed, prompting the Ukrainian Ministry of Health to launch a comprehensive polio outbreak response plan, which began in February.

Polio is a debilitating, potentially fatal disease that can lead to permanent paralysis. Unvaccinated children younger than 6-years old are at great risk. The goal of the response plan was to increase vaccination rates among Ukrainian children to 95 percent as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). These efforts have stalled amid the armed conflict.

Tuberculosis (TB) rates are relatively high in Ukraine, with more than 30,000 cases reported last year alone. TB is a bacterial infection of the lungs that spreads through the air when a person with the disease coughs, sneezes, laughs, or sings. Crowded conditions at border crossings and refugee shelters could lead to an uptick in new cases. 

Trauma and post-traumatic stress

Ukrainians displaced by war may have experienced a range of traumatic events. They may have seen fighting, watched friends or loved ones be hurt, and witnessed the destruction of their communities.

Many have been forced to abandon their jobs, their homes and many of their possessions. Families and friends may be separated and isolated, as millions seek asylum in neighboring countries. Each of these hardships can result in significant psychological distress among refugees.

Anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression occur at a higher rate among refugees than the general population. This can be due, in part, to the stressors they faced before they migrated. But it can also be tied to issues they encounter after they’ve relocated, such as separation anxiety, difficulty finding a job, and lack of social support.  Refugees may also have trouble adapting to a new culture, language or environment.

Dwindling medical oxygen and other supplies

Ukraine is facing dire shortages of medical oxygen and other supplies. WHO officials warn the country’s oxygen supply could run out in a matter of days. Medical oxygen is often critical for people with a range of conditions, including COVID, sepsis, injuries, asthma, and trauma. It may also be needed to treat premature babies and women during childbirth.   

Trucks have been unable to transport oxygen from plants to hospitals across the country, including Kyiv, threatening thousands of lives, the WHO warns. 

Some 7.1 percent of the adult Ukrainian population has diabetes. Heart disease accounts for 50 percent of total mortality in the country. Cancer is the second leading cause of death. These and other chronic illnesses often require medication to keep them under control and prevent complications. Local insulin supply and other medications are expected to become scarce as the invasion continues.

Compounding the health risks, electricity and power shortages in Ukraine may hinder effective medical care and people’s access to basic needs and services. Gun fire and violence is preventing Ukrainians from accessing health care and changing how healthcare providers are able to offer services to their patients.

How you can help Ukrainian refugees

People watching the conflict in real-time from a distance— hundreds or even thousands of miles away—can still support the people of Ukraine.

Among those in greatest need are women, children, older people and those with disabilities, the UN added, noting the number of people needing food, shelter, medical care, water, sanitation, and protection is increasing rapidly.

Learn more about the organizations providing humanitarian aid and life-saving support to those caught up in the conflict.

Article sources open article sources

United Nations. “Ukraine crisis: UN agencies support rising tide of refugees.” Mar 2, 2022. “Where Ukrainian Refugees Are Heading – and Why.” Mar 1, 2022.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “UNHCR mobilizing to aid forcibly displaced in Ukraine and neighboring countries.” Mar 1, 2022.
World Economic Forum. “5 things to know about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.” Mar 2, 2022.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “THE COVID-19 CRISIS IN UKRAINE.” Feb 25, 2022.
Global Polio Eradication Initiative. “Circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus in Ukraine.” Oct 13, 2021.
World Health Organization. “Catch-up polio immunization campaign to begin in Ukraine.” Jan 27, 2022.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Understand PTSD.” Accessed Mar 2, 2022.
Hameed S, Sadiq A, Din AU. The Increased Vulnerability of Refugee Population to Mental Health Disorders. Kans J Med. 2018;11(1):1-12. Feb 28, 2018.
World Health Organization. “Dangerously low medical oxygen supplies in Ukraine due to crisis, warn WHO Director-General and WHO Regional Director for Europe.” Feb 27, 2022.
International Diabetes Federation. “Ukraine.” Mar 2, 2022.

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