Press Release WHO/51
9 July 1998
PREPARATION OF EMERGENCY AID WORKERS INADEQUATE, SAYS WHO STUDY
A just-finalized study commissioned and carried out by WHO in Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania in February 1998 found that the preparation of emergency and relief workers for rigorous duty under difficult and often dangerous conditions is sometimes inadequate.
Aid workers often receive little training and warning about the living and working conditions awaiting them in the field, and the recruitment procedures used by many relief agencies are often less than professional. "Many staff are recruited hurriedly and casually with little time for references or checking of references .Briefing on security issues and political matters appears to be especially deficient and staff sometimes feel they are placed at unnecessary risk as a result," the study said.
Of particular importance for WHO was the neglect of health issues. Of the more than 200 relief workers questioned, 53% had not received any personal medical briefing prior to departure and 20% of those surveyed had not had, or were not aware of, whether their vaccination status had been verified.
"It is not unusual for [emergency aid] staff to arrive at duty stations without having first had a medical exam, a personal medical kit or any medical briefing Advice about food and water safety, infectious and parasitic diseases is often lacking, and inappropriate assumptions seem to be made about what relief workers already know about health protection," the study found.
Psychosocial health was also a concern to come out of the study. Only half of the sample felt that they were able to function well on the day that they were interviewed and a high proportion of respondents reported general fatigue (59%) and headaches (50%). "The reported frequency of sleeping difficulties, anger and irritability is also noteworthy," the study highlights, "not only because of its immediate implications for the health of staff themselves, but also because of its wider implications for team work and performance under pressure". Reported increases in smoking and alcohol were small (under 10% in both cases) and lower than might have been anticipated.
Common causes of anxiety for field workers were found to be related to contract and employment, security, family and health issues, while the three main general health concerns were over diarrhoeal diseases, other gastrointestinal/digestive problems and skin ailments. Almost 20% of the sample reported having a diarrhoeal disease episode in the two weeks prior to the interview. This suggests, according to the study, that "more deserves to be done in terms of information, education and management of food and water consumption". Well over half the people surveyed had not received any briefing about food safety and/or the measures to take in case of food-borne problems.
Almost one-quarter of all those surveyed said they had been recruited solely on the basis of written correspondence and had not been asked to provide any references.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 52/167 highlights the personal risk taken by all humanitarian personnel and calls for action to improve their safety and security. WHO began its efforts in October 1997 to reduce the health risks to field workers.
"It is not easy. The time taken to recruit field workers is often an issue, and support and supervision at long distance is difficult. We are convinced that much can be improved and hope the experience of well-established agencies can be brought to bear. We hope that our work will be a spur to the international community as a whole. There is evidently a need to protect humanitarian aid workers more effectively," said Dr Harald Siem, Chief of WHO's Inter-Agency Cooperation Unit for Emergency and Humanitarian Action (EHA/ICA), who was chairing the consultative meeting.
"Not to provide [emergency aid] staff with clear guidelines on how to deal with these situations might in the future [cause cases of staff neglect to] surface in the courtrooms," the study concluded.
The results of the study were discussed at a two-day meeting at WHO headquarters on 8 and 9 July. Close to 50 people representing national governments, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations participated. The study represents the first stage in a project which will next see WHO approaching relief agencies at their headquarters to discuss current policies and identify obstacles to the implementation of good recruitment and health practices concerning aid workers.
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