First aid: a life-saving legacy for all

Published: 3 May 2013 20:34 CET

The first recorded successful resuscitation dates back to 896BC. The mouth-to-mouth technique was described in Mayan hieroglyphics. Fast forward and 150 years ago, a battle in northern Italy sparked an idea that has since changed the world.

On 24 June 1859, Henry Dunant, a young businessman from Geneva, witnessed horrifying suffering and agony following the battle of Solferino. He organized the local villagers to provide treatment and care to all the wounded soldiers regardless of which side they fought.

Dunant’s act at Solferino inspired the idea of national voluntary relief organizations to help nurse wounded soldiers in battle and four years later, an organization was formed which has grown into the world’s largest voluntary humanitarian network – the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

First aid has become one of the principal services provided by Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff to people who are in need all over the world, helping to save millions of lives. The need for humanitarian aid is still as vital today as it was in 1859, and it’s not restricted to the theatre of war.

According to Stefan Seebacher, head of the health department, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), millions of people are injured or killed each year due to inadequate response or lack of timely assistance.

Taking immediate action and applying the appropriate techniques – while waiting for professional help – can considerably reduce deaths and injuries, and their impact during disasters and everyday emergencies.

“Despite the obvious benefits of learning first aid, there are many reasons why people do not act in an emergency, including fear of liability, lack of knowledge about the right course of action or ‘bystander syndrome’ – just assuming someone else will know what to do,” says Pascal Cassan, head of the IFRC Global First Aid Reference Centre.

In the UK, a campaign aimed at young people aged 11 to 16 was designed to build their confidence and ability to act. In Belize, primary school children receive training in basic first aid, CPR and what to do if someone is choking. Choking is perhaps the one emergency situation where seconds really do count. With a blocked airway, brain damage can occur after just 90 seconds, but surprisingly, few people know what to do and young children are particularly at risk.

“Governments can take a more dynamic approach by promoting compulsory first-aid training and education. Policies like making first-aid education compulsory at workplace, in schools or for driving licence applicants can help to make a difference, but more needs to be done to reach vulnerable groups,” Pascal Cassan says.

Another reason why people are not trained in first aid is because they may not have access to adequate resources. Many people especially those living in war-torn or disaster-affected areas are rarely given the opportunity to be trained in basic first aid.

“First aid awareness is lacking in many vulnerable communities, where a very basic idea of how to treat an injury, or in the worst-case scenario keep someone alive, would have real impact,” says Pascal.

The injuries and problems a first aider is likely to encounter haven’t changed a great deal in 150 years, but the techniques and methods that can be used to save a life have changed making regular training updates vital.

In the aftermath of a disaster, community-based volunteers trained in first aid, are usually among the first to respond. They are on the ground, ready to help people in need. This builds stronger communities who are able to take action in the first instance.

And this is where first aid goes beyond just being a skill – it’s about building longer-term community resilience with humanitarian values at its heart.