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New Global Framework Makes Health The Priority In Emergencies And Disasters

Government representatives from around the world have gathered in Sendai, Japan to negotiate a new framework for global action to reduce the risks of disasters. For the first time, protecting people’s health is at the center of such a framework.

“Governments have increasingly recognized that healthy people are resilient people, and that resilient people recover much more quickly from emergencies and disasters," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General for Emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO). "Recent and ongoing disasters – from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the Ebola crisis in West Africa – highlight the centrality of human health to our collective goals in disaster risk reduction by all sectors."

A new WHO policy framework has been designed to help national policymakers build capacities to effectively manage emergency risks and reduce their health consequences.

Recognizing the importance of disease early warning systems to disaster risk reduction, WHO renewed its commitment to help all Member States achieve their core capacities to detect, assess, notify and respond to epidemics and other public health threats under the International Health Regulations (2005).

WHO also released a new Comprehensive Safe Hospital Framework for reducing disaster damage to this critical aspect of a community’s emergency and health infrastructure, which is one of the key targets under discussion in Sendai.

“The Safe Hospitals Initiative is about more than protecting buildings," Aylward said. "It’s about ensuring that health facilities are accessible and functional, at maximum capacity, immediately after a disaster strikes."

Part of this initiative is the Hospital Safety Index – a tool that provides a rapid assessment of the essential safety and preparedness measures hospitals must take to remain operational in emergencies. In large-scale disasters, such as those caused by earthquakes or floods, some countries have lost 50 percent of their hospital capacity, compromising their ability to respond to the emergency and to provide important health services such as immunization.

Recent disasters have shown again that such preventive measures can save lives and reduce health impact. No casualties were reported in the majority of affected areas when Typhoon Ruby hit the Philippines in December 2014, due in part to increased preparedness after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed more than 600 health facilities in 2013.

Governments and communities around the world are increasingly making hospitals safer in the face of disasters. As part of the Safe Hospitals Initiative, 79 countries have taken action over the past 20 years to make their hospitals safer in disasters, with more than 3,500 facilities assessed.

“The increased attention to health in Sendai reflects the needs and lessons learned from the Great East Japan and Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquakes,” said Alex Ross, director of the WHO Kobe Centerin Japan. “In particular, we need to focus on the long-term psychosocial needs of survivors, of vulnerable groups such as older people and people with disabilities, and the urban environment in order to build resilient health systems and communities."

An estimated 8,000 government and public safety and health representatives attended the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which ended March 18, including 15 heads of state, more than 80 ministers and around 10 high-level United Nations chief executives, including the United Nations Secretary-General. It has been heralded as the most important event in emergency and disaster risk management since the Hyogo Framework for Action was agreed in Kobe 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, WHO in the Western Pacific Region is coordinating response efforts with Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and other humanitarian partners to bring much-needed health support to the Pacific island country, following the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam.

The cyclone ravaged Vanuatu on 13–14 March with winds of more than 250 kms per hour and one-meter storm surges. While damage is still being assessed, there are reports of deaths and se-rious injuries, destroyed homes and limited or no access to health services, food and clean water in many places.

“We are working closely with our partners to get the people of Vanuatu what they need as quick-ly as possible to respond to this devastating cyclone,” said Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “We have activated our emergency operations center and put a support team in place to assess needs and deploy critical resources to help in the response.”

WHO is sending health and emergency response experts with supplies to Vanuatu to assist in the response. WHO is also communicating with the governments of Australia and New Zealand, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other organizations, to ensure Vanuatu gets the right resources to meet their health needs. WHO and UNICEF are also working with the Ministry of Health to conduct an immunization campaign in response to a measles outbreak that began before the cyclone.

Complicating response efforts, the cyclone caused roads blocked with debris, knocked down bridges, and flooding. Electricity is out in many places and phones and Internet systems are down or are unreliable. The extent of the damage continues to be assessed.

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