Campaign is launched to protect health facilities from disasters

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 24 January 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:176
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. 1London

    Hundreds of hospitals and other health facilities are destroyed or damaged every year by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. Consequently, millions of people are left without emergency care during and after disasters when such facilities are unable to function.

    A two year global campaign to make hospitals and clinics safe from disasters was launched at this week’s world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, by the secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and the World Health Organization, with support from the World Bank.

    The secretariat warns, “Damage to primary healthcare centres during disasters can deal serious blows to public health infrastructure and national health systems, sometimes leaving entire populations without adequate access to crucial primary health care or health facilities months after the tragedy.

    “This could mean disruption of essential health interventions such as routine immunisation or maternal and child health care, as well as an increased risk of epidemics.”

    On 5 August 2007, in just two minutes, the city of Pisco in Peru lost 97% of its hospital beds to an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale. In Pakistan the October 2005 earthquake destroyed 50% of the healthcare facilities in the affected areas. The tsunami in December 2004 destroyed 61% of the healthcare facilities in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

    The strategy points out that “functional collapse, not structural damage, is the usual reason for hospitals being put out of service during emergencies” and that “field hospitals are not necessarily the best solution to compensate for the loss of a hospital or health facility during a natural disaster.”

    The campaign will focus on three main objectives:

    • Better protection of the lives of patients, healthcare staff, and the public by reinforcing the structural resilience of healthcare facilities

    • Ensuring that healthcare facilities and services continue to function in the aftermath of disasters, and

    • Better preparation and training of healthcare workers in preparedness plans that will keep systems operating when disasters strike.

    It estimates that incorporating mitigation measures into the design and construction of a new hospital will account for less than 4% of the total initial investment. And fitting disaster proofing into existing hospitals may cost only 1% of the initial investment, while protecting up to 90% of the value of a hospital.

    “With current knowledge and strong political commitment it is possible to protect health facilities from disasters, even with the limited resources available in developing countries,” said Ala Alwan, assistant director general for health action in crises at WHO.

    The campaign cautions: “Disasters are a health and a social issue. Not only is health treatment critical in the aftermath of a disaster, damage to health facilities and systems affects development long into the future.” It urges all those responsible for safety in hospitals to take action.

    “The price we pay for the failure of hospitals when disasters happen is too high. In comparison, the cost of making hospitals safe is tiny,” said Salvano Briceño, director of the secretariat. “The most expensive hospital is the one that fails.”


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