UN officials call for urgent action to protect hospitals from natural hazards

14 October 2009 – United Nations officials are using the International Day for Disaster Reduction to urge governments to take practical steps to make hospitals safe from natural hazards, a need underscored by the recent tragedies that struck Asia and the Pacific.

“Health facilities must be better prepared to respond to local hazards. They must be designed, built and maintained so they can better protect health workers and patients alike when disaster hits,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message to mark the Day, observed annually on 14 October.

With weather-related disasters on the increase, it is critical to ensure that health facilities are prepared for emergencies and able to provide life-saving care in their wake, he said.

Mr. Ban noted that in Indonesia, hospital collapses during the recent earthquake in Sumatra caused additional loss of life. Earlier this year, in the Italian city of L’Aquila, the collapse of a newly built hospital provided a grim reminder that health systems in richer nations are also at risk.

The cost of making hospitals safe from disasters is relatively small, he said, noting that “the most expensive hospital is the one that fails.”

This year’s observance marks the culmination of a two-year Safe Hospitals campaign – a joint initiative of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank – aimed at ensuring people’s access to functioning health facilities during and after natural hazards.

“Since the beginning of the campaign, much has been achieved to make hospitals safer but more investments are still needed to improve the functionality of hospital when disasters occur,” said Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Hospitals and heath facilities are in the frontline when floods, hurricanes, cyclones, and earthquakes strike, according to a news release by the UNISDR. Many are adversely impacted because safety measures were not integrated in their design, construction and functionality.

There are at least 90,000 hospitals and other health facilities in the world’s 49 least developed countries, many of which are vulnerable to disasters, including those related to the harmful effects of climate change.

“No new hospital should be built unless it can withstand the impact of natural hazards,” Ms. Wahlström added. “Existing health facilities should also be assessed for their safety and action take to improve their safety and the level of their preparedness.”

The Safe Hospitals campaign involves practical steps to make facilities safer, including the Hospital Safety Index, a checklist for assessing hospital preparedness. It has already been applied to many facilities in Latin America, as well as in Oman, Sudan and Tajikistan.

“Preparedness and risk reduction is the way ahead in health and humanitarian action,” said Eric Laroche, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises. “By working together, countries and communities can deal with these risks, particularly by reducing vulnerabilities and building capacities to mitigate and respond to all emergencies they may face.”

Also emphasizing the importance of making hospitals safer is WHO Goodwill Ambassador and international film star Jet Li, who has seen first-hand the impact of the 2004 tsunami in the Maldives, last year’s Sichuan earthquake and Typhoon Morakot, which struck Beijing and Taipei in August.

“For the victims of these disasters, the struggle is great,” he said in a video message to mark the Day. “What is especially important is the safety of hospitals during these moments.

“Earthquakes, storms and flooding are becoming more and more common,” he added. “I am appealing to all governments and cities to build hospitals so safe they are able to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and other types of environmental stress. This way we are able to protect and save more lives.”


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