UN urges States to strengthen life-saving facilities to better withstand disasters

7 April 2009 – The United Nations today marked World Health Day today with an urgent call for greater investment in hospitals and other health care facilities that play a critical role in saving lives of survivors in the immediate aftermath of humanitarian crises.

In his message commemorating the Day, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that “when disaster strikes, well-prepared, functioning medical services are a priority.

“Hospitals, clinics and other health facilities must react swiftly and efficiently [and] they must provide safe havens, and not become disaster zones themselves,” in the event of floods, earthquakes, the outbreak of infectious diseases and other natural or man-made disasters, Mr. Ban said.

This year’s World Health Day campaign – “Save lives, make hospitals safe in emergencies” – is a global call to countries to prepare their health systems for emergencies, he said.

Highlighting the need to protect public health by designing and building facilities that can withstand natural disasters, the Secretary-General said that when “a hospital collapses in an earthquake, burying patients and staff, the human cost multiplies.”

“When an infectious disease spreads because a hospital is poorly ventilated or constructed, or because health care workers lack adequate training, we are failing people at their most vulnerable,” he added.

The UN World Disaster Reduction Campaign for 2008-2009 has pooled the efforts of the World Heath Organization (WHO), the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) and the World Bank to produce durable health facilities that can stand up to disasters, such as cyclones and earthquakes, said Mr. Ban.

In addition, “we must also ensure they are not targeted during conflicts. Health care workers must be trained to work safely in emergencies, so they can save lives, rather than becoming victims themselves.”

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that it costs “surprisingly little” to build hospitals that can stand up to the shocks of earthquakes, floods, or high winds.

“It costs even less to retrofit existing facilities to keep their services running at critical times [and] it costs almost nothing to integrate risk management and emergency preparedness into a hospital’s operational plans,” she added in her own statement marking World Health Day.

In South-East Asia more than half a million people lost their lives to natural disasters between 1996 and 2005, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the global total death toll from natural disasters during that period, according to WHO.

The agency reported that in Aceh, Indonesia, 61per cent of health facilities were damaged or completely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and cyclone Nargis destroyed 57 per cent of public health facilities in the affected areas in Myanmar last year.

“In some cases, although a facility remains standing, it is still rendered non-functional. Non-structural lifelines such as water and power supply must not fail,” said Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia.

“A safe and functional health facility needs contingency plans and a well-trained health workforce ready to deal with emergencies,” he added.

Member States in the region have taken steps to make health facilities safer during a disaster with the “Twelve Benchmarks for Emergency Preparedness,” a complete set of standards and checklists for making new and existing health facilities more robust created in collaboration with WHO.

As part of a campaign to raise awareness on the issue, WHO South-East Asia Regional Office has launched its “click-a-brick for safe hospitals” website www.searo.who.int.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has prepared a fact sheet on early warning systems related to weather, water and climate disasters to commemorate the Day, noting that from 1980 to 2005 nearly 7,500 natural disasters worldwide had taken the lives of over 2 million people. WMO said that while the number of disasters had increased over the past 50 years, the loss of life had decreased due to increasingly accurate disaster warning systems.

Meanwhile, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched its global campaign against drugs to coincide with World Health Day under the banner, “Drug control is not just about security, it’s about health.”

Around 200 million people take drugs at least once a year and 25 million of these are regarded as drug dependent, with around 200,000 people dying from drug-related illnesses every year, according to UNODC.

“Drug dependence is an illness and should be prevented and treated as such,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. The agency’s international anti-drug campaign will run until 26 June 2009, which is World Drug Day, the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.


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