First World Humanitarian Day celebrated
18 August 2009 -- For the first ever World Humanitarian Day, this podcast focuses on how WHO works in the world's most dangerous regions to save lives.
Transcript of the podcast
Veronica Riemer: You’re listening to the WHO podcast, and my name is Veronica Riemer. In this episode, we mark the first ever World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, by looking at how WHO works in the world's most dangerous regions to save lives.
WHO and its health partners respond to emergencies all over the world, including natural disasters, drought and conflict. In Sri Lanka, recent conflict caused a massive humanitarian crisis, as WHO representative Dr Firdosi Rustom Mehta explains.
Dr Firdosi Rustom Mehta: At the peak of the war when there was a no-fire zone and on a daily basis there was a question of trauma management, emergency care, ICRC ships taking out people from the no-fire zone and bringing them to the Indian hospital and the Tricomalee hospital for triage and for emergency care and trauma care. Once the war was over, and the no-fire zone etc was liberated, the next issue was an influx of a quarter of a million people who were coming out in batches and to give them shelter, food, water and health care.
Veronica Riemer: TV screens and the Internet bring the pain that conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies cause into our homes, giving us a glimpse of how millions face humanitarian suffering. But how much do we know about the humanitarian workers who risk their lives in these crises, to save others?
World Humanitarian Day pays tribute to humanitarian staff in all domains, those who have lost their lives, and those who continue to work in the world's most challenging environments. The Day was chosen in remembrance of those who died in 2003 when a bomb devastated a United Nations building in Baghdad. 22 people were killed, including one WHO staff member.
Dr Khalid Shibib, from WHO's Health Action in Crises Cluster was in Baghdad that day. He has recently returned from another humanitarian crisis, the ongoing conflict and displacement in Pakistan, where he has been supporting the Health Cluster response to the emergency.
Dr Khalid Shibib: Especially in conflict situations but also in other not very clear situations, security is a big issue and humanitarian and international humanitarian community is working under certain security risks. However we noticed also that humanitarian workers have been targeted by parties to the conflict in several countries and this is a most recent trend, it is very dangerous and it is not acceptable.
Veronica Riemer: WHO's Dr Omar Mekki, who was among the more than 150 wounded in the UN compound attack, acknowledges that risk is an unavoidable part of humanitarian work today. But he says there are other vital aspects to humanitarianism.
Dr Omar Mekki: It is about responsibility, it is about emotion, it is about sacrifice, it is about being trusted, it is about being prepared to respond. Doing our humanitarian work involves an increased level of risk but we have to accept and live with it as humanitarian workers.
Veronica Riemer: WHO staff from multiple projects, ranging from polio eradication to emergency surgery, regularly go to the field to improve the health of people affected by crises, and in doing so put their own lives at great risk. One of them is Dr Meena Cherian, a WHO medical officer who has witnessed tragedy and terror in her work to improve emergency surgical care in developing countries.
Dr Meena Cherian: "I was doing a workshop in a Nepal hospital a few years ago and suddenly there was a bomb blast nearby. The workshop had to be stopped because everybody was needed to help treat the victims. I was at another workshop at a remote Ethiopian hospital. A small baby died while waiting for prompt, yet simple, surgical intervention. This baby's young parents had walked for 20 days seeking help and this was the only facility that could provide the care, but it was too late.
It is important to save lives and prevent disabilities as a result of injuries sustained during a humanitarian crisis. This will help the world's most vulnerable people, the women, the poor, the children to receive prompt life-saving emergency and surgical care."
Veronica Riemer: Afghanistan's people are vulnerable to multiple health threats, not least of which is polio. In the drive to eradicate the virus, two of WHO's national polio staff were killed last year in a suicide car bombing, just days before a major vaccination drive. While their deaths underscored the risks humanitarians face, Peter Graaff, WHO's representative to Afghanistan, said the tragedy emboldened the commitment of humanitarians to carry out their life-saving mission.
Peter Graaff: Immediately thereafter I have never seen proud Pashtun men sit there with wet eyes at a total loss. They felt this is it. We are struggling to get our children immunized. We are not making much headway there. And now we are losing our colleagues as well. But within 24 hours that had turned around 180 degrees into "now we want to do it in their memory." So it reinvigorated the effort in the south of the country and it means that these two guys are now our polio heroes.
Veronica Riemer: And the fears, Graaff adds, diminish when humanitarians see the results of the work they carry out.
Peter Graaff: It is a privilege to work in such an environment, the need is great, the uptake of initiatives is at times very rapid and very positive. So you see the results. So I think, let say the day-to-day life is not about being afraid and about security, it is about smiling children, it is about grateful mothers, it's about communities that finally had a chance.
Veronica Riemer: If you would like to find out more about World Humanitarian Day, there are links to related information on the transcript page of this podcast episode. Look for the link to the podcast on the home page of our web site, at www.who.int
That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics drop us a line. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.