Health in emergencies

The lives and health of millions of people are affected by emergencies every year. The IFRC works to reduce illness and death and improve health and maintain human dignity during health emergencies.

In the last decade, disasters caused more than 1 million deaths and affected almost 3 million people around the world at a cost of nearly 1 trillion US dollars (World Disasters Report 2009).

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and its millions of volunteers provide frontline response when emergencies strike. They provide immediate assistance for the victims and are involved in longer-term activities that save lives and improve health. 

Natural disasters

When disasters such as earthquakes, floods and storms hit vulnerable communities already affected by poverty, disease and poor infrastructure, the effects are devastating. Besides the direct consequences of the disaster, potential for development is prevented or severely delayed. Swift and effective response by the IFRC saves lives and helps put communities back on the path to a better future.

Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis
When a massive cyclone hit Myanmar’s coast causing unprecedented devastation in May 2008, foreign aid workers had many difficulties reaching the affected communities. Myanmar Red Cross Society volunteers set up dozens of mobile health points where people could access basic health services and receive assistance. This work was supported with IFRC technical guidance and resources and the help of many sister National Societies. 

Haiti: Earthquake 2010
On 12 January, Haiti witnessed one of the most devastating disasters in its history, tens of thousands were killed and millions affected. The IFRC and many of its National Societies came to the help of the Haitian Red Cross and people. Among many others, the IFRC sent 6 Health ERUs including 1 referral hospital, 1 rapid deployment hospital, and 4 Basic Health Care ERUs; together they treated more than 100,000 patients including performing complex surgeries in the first 4 months after the earthquake.

Epidemic outbreaks

Epidemics of infectious diseases including diarrhoea, meningitis, yellow fever, respiratory infections, polio, viral haemorrhagic fever and others cause vast numbers of deaths and disability every year.Outbreaks of infectious disease are more frequent in poor and overcrowded communities with low standards of living. These conditions make it even harder to contain the disease and provide effective health care. The prevention of disease and treatment of those affected are responsibilities shared by ministries of health, international agencies, non-governmental organizations and the communities themselves. Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers link people and communities with the vital help they need.

Zimbabwe: Cholera
In 2008 an unusually large cholera outbreak hit all of Zimbabwe. By mid 2009 it had affected more than 100,000 people in a country where the health infrastructure was already devastated. The IFRC deployed cholera treatment centres from 6 different countries and water treatment facilities that could provide 800,000 litres of clean water per day. Thousands of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers visited families, identifying the sick and providing oral rehydration and household water treatment.

Changing behaviour, improving lives

As with many health threats, behaviour change in affected communities is one of the vital ways of preventing disease and improving health in emergencies. Another is the provision of health care resources.

The IFRC works on both fronts. While deploying many Emergency Response Units (ERUs) to support or replace overwhelmed health infrastructures, Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff work in their communities to deliver relief supplies, provide guidance and help people adapt their lives and behaviour to protect their health. This work helps to prevent and, to promote good health and to give local communities the resources they need to cope.

Building capacities

The IFRC’s extensive health training programme covers a wide range of audiences, from expert health professionals at the IFRC Field School to public health in emergencies training for National Society staff and volunteers.

Several publications are available for National Societies and public access

Emergency health projects