World Disasters Report 2008: Rising to the challenge of HIV in disasters and crises

Published: 26 June 2008

To effectively address what this year’s World Disasters Report calls a long-term and complex disaster, HIV should be given much higher priority in disaster management programmes, whether in  preparedness and risk reduction, or during emergency response and recovery.

The Report, launched today (26 June) by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, highlights the need for humanitarian organisations, working in partnership with governments and local communities, to increase the scale and scope of programmes for HIV prevention, treatment and care, and for tackling the associated stigma and discrimination.

According to UNAIDS, almost seven thousand people contract HIV every day – and without a major change in the epidemic’s trajectory, AIDS will claim millions more lives. Since 1981, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS, and some 33 million are currently living with HIV.

HIV is a disaster on many levels. In the most affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where prevalence rates reach 20 per cent, development gains are reversed and life expectancy halved. For marginalized groups across the world – injecting drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men – rates are on the increase. Yet they often face stigma, criminalization and little, if any, access to prevention and treatment services. Disasters, man-made and ‘natural’, disrupt basic services, exacerbate other drivers of the epidemic, and can increase people’s vulnerability to HIV infection. People living with HIV are among the groups most vulnerable in disaster and crisis situations. But, at the same time, they have much to offer and their fuller participation is crucial to tackling the epidemic.

“This year’s World Disasters Report is the first to focus on one condition and with good reason. For sub-Saharan African societies that are torn apart by HIV and for numerous marginalized groups worldwide, who are left to cope with death, disease and destitution, HIV is undoubtedly a disaster,” said International Federation Secretary General Markku Niskala. “The humanitarian community must rise to the challenge of HIV, especially in the context of the further challenges thrown up by climate change, migration, and the culture of violence that is prevalent in many societies”. 

The Report not only analyzes the enormous economic, social and intellectual toll of HIV and AIDS but also details the vast challenges the epidemic presents to governments, humanitarian organizations and local communities.  HIV must be integrated as a cross-cutting issue in all forms of humanitarian assistance, including health care, nutrition, social programmes and security, whether in emergency operations, or in long-term developmental programmes. HIV, the Report contends, should not be set aside because other priorities seem to be more important. 

“The HIV and AIDS epidemic is a disaster whose scale and extent could have been prevented. Ignorance, stigma, political inaction, indifference and denial all contributed to millions of deaths,” explained Lindsay Knight, editor of the World Disasters Report. “The Report dispels myths about those ‘other’ people who spread HIV – refugees, migrants, people escaping from conflict and poverty. We must all do much more to eradicate stigma. It is also important to recognize that addressing HIV requires a longer-term reaction than the usual response to emergencies but that it also provides an opportunity to build resilience and empower communities,” she added.

Fighting bureaucracy, simplifying procedures, improving coordination, confronting gender inequalities, and involving local communities including, especially, people living with HIV - are among the solutions offered by the Report, to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of HIV programmes. Better preparedness for emergencies, reducing risk, and further research into HIV’s impact on people living in disaster zones are also examined.

A final chapter deals with the funding of HIV programmes and details possible corrective measures by donor governments and partners. “We need smart money and not necessarily always more money” asserts Dr Mukesh Kapila, Special Representative of the International Federation, and the co-chair of the Red Cross Red Crescent Global Alliance on HIV. “The rhetoric of good donorship and good partnership must be fully implemented. Tied aid and earmarked aid which is frequently expensive, short term and ill-adapted to local needs must be reduced further. Funding for HIV needs to be evidence-based and results-driven. It must reach those who need it more quickly and more fully. Doing any less will continue to cost lives”.

The World Disasters Report also includes a section on disaster statistics and analysis of global trends, supplied by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), based at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium. Overall, disasters in 2007 were slightly less numerous and far less deadly than in previous years but the total number of people affected by natural disasters, including floods, storms, droughts and geophysical disasters, rose sharply compared to 2006.

405 natural disasters were reported worldwide in 2007, as opposed to 423 in 2006. Although the number of people reported killed (16,679) was the lowest for a decade, the number of people reported affected by such disasters in 2007 rose to 201 million, a 40 per cent increase compared to the previous year.

By contrast, the number and impact of technological disasters, which include industrial, transport and other structural accidents, was the lowest in a decade.

A total of 252 technological disasters were reported; the death toll decreased to 6,488; and the number of people reported affected (47,000) showed a significant decrease of 70 per cent compared to 2006.

The combined total of 23,167 people killed by natural and technological disasters was the lowest of the decade, far below the decade’s average of 113,000.

Note to the editors:

The International Federation launched the Global Alliance on HIV on December 1, 2006. Its aim is to double the magnitude of Red Cross and Red Crescent HIV programming by the end of 2010, in low- and middle-income countries. By November 2007, some 60 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies had joined the HIV Global Alliance – nearly one third of the Federation’s membership.