Emergency health

The IFRC and our 191 National Societies strive to reduce illness and death, improve health and maintain people’s dignity during emergencies. Our emergency health team works to improve the quality, reliability, predictability and flexibility of our health services around the world in preparation for emergencies.

About emergency health

Every year, disasters and emergencies affect the health and wellbeing of millions of people. 

They can have immediate health consequences—for example when people are seriously injured by earthquakes, flooding and other hazards.

But longer-term public health crises may also arise in the aftermath of a disaster. This can happen when health services are damaged or depleted, when increased needs overwhelm existing health systems, or when initial health risks are poorly managed.

Disasters can also be health emergencies by their very nature—as is the case with epidemics and pandemics.

What we do

An IFRC safe and dignified burial team respond to an alert from family members who have lost a loved one suspected of Ebola.

An IFRC safe and dignified burial team respond to an alert from family members who have lost a loved one suspected of Ebola.

Photo: IFRC/Maria Santto

The IFRC is uniquely placed to mobilize the necessary resources, provide timely health care and save lives when disaster strikes.

We can count on our millions of community-based volunteers worldwide and on our technical expertise and specialized tools to act before, during and after health emergencies to meet people’s needs and build community resilience.

Our emergency health work focuses on supporting Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to:

  • Prepare for and respond to the health consequences of disasters and crises, including epidemics and pandemics
  • Build and maintain community-level capacity in effective prevention, detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks
  • Respond to mental health and psychosocial needs during emergencies

During large-scale disasters that require international assistance, the IFRC, along with several partner National Societies, can immediately deploy health personnel and equipment to support the local response in disaster-affected countries.

Explore our emergency health work

School children practice proper handwashing at a water point installed by the Liberian Red Cross before classes start in Montserrado, Liberia in October 2015.

Public health in emergencies

The IFRC delivers wide-ranging public health preparedness and response activities to prevent, detect and minimize the impact of potential public health emergencies.

A Finnish and Norwegian Red Cross Emergency Response Unit team performs an operation on a baby boy in a field hospital in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh

Medical services in emergencies

Our medical services team provides high-quality technical support to National Societies on medical, nursing and paramedical issues during disasters, crises and health emergencies.

A Ugandan Red Cross volunteer teaches his local community how to recognise signs of the ebola virus so they can alert local health authorities to take rapid action

Epidemic and pandemic preparedness

The IFRC and our National Societies engage and train people worldwide in epidemic preparedness and response. We help them prevent, detect and quickly respond to outbreaks—saving countless lives.

Emergency Response Units

In a large-scale emergency, or when a National Society’s capacity is stretched, the IFRC and several National Societies can deploy expert personnel and equipment to prevent, detect and respond to people’s health needs. These are called Emergency Response Units (ERUs) and we can deploy them to provide both clinical and public health response.

ERUs prevent and treat illnesses and improve health and dignity for communities affected by slow- and sudden-onset disasters or outbreaks. Working in support of government health systems, ERUs can:

  • Coordinate health services between humanitarian agencies
  • Provide overall strategic direction of the health response to an emergency
  • Implement community- and clinic-based health interventions
  • Provide critical, lifesaving health services to communities

Clinical ERU services include: emergency clinics (fixed and mobile); emergency hospitals; operating theatres; cholera treatment; and maternal and newborn health clinics (including midwives and obstetrics and gynaecology specialists).

Public health ERU services include: community-based surveillance to detect and report disease outbreaks; community case management of malnutrition and cholera; safe and dignified burials; and psychosocial support

Find out more about the global health services and other ERUs the IFRC can deploy in an emergency on IFRC GO.

Emergency appeals