Statement for World Health Day 2009
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
When an emergency or disaster occurs, most lives are lost or saved in the immediate aftermath of the event. People count on hospitals and health facilities to respond, swiftly and efficiently, as the lifeline for survival and the backbone of support.
The tragedy of a major emergency or disaster is compounded when health facilities fail. When a hospital collapses or its functions are disrupted, lives that depend on emergency care can be lost. Interruptions in routine services can also be deadly.
In large emergencies, such as those caused by earthquakes or floods, some countries have lost as much as 50% of their hospital capacity, right at the time when life-saving services were most acutely needed.
Apart from causing increased suffering and loss of life, the failure of health facilities during an emergency can provoke a public outcry, especially when shoddy construction or violations of building codes are thought to be at fault.
Such public concern is fully justified. As this web site shows, it costs surprisingly little to construct a new hospital that can withstand the shocks of earthquakes, floods, or high winds. It costs even less to retrofit existing facilities to keep their services running at critical times. It costs almost nothing to integrate risk management and emergency preparedness into a hospital’s operational plans.
To commemorate World Health Day this year, WHO is advocating a series of best practices that can be implemented, in any resource setting, to make hospitals safe during emergencies. Apart from safe siting and resilient construction, good planning and carrying out emergency exercises in advance can help maintain critical functions. Proven measures range from early warning systems to a simple hospital safety assessment, from protecting equipment and supplies to preparing staff to manage mass casualties and infection control measures.
Different types of emergencies bring typical patterns of injuries, such as crush injuries in earthquakes and hypothermia in floods, with corresponding needs for training and supplies. These needs can be anticipated in advance, and surge capacity can be tailored to manage them.
It is smart to think and plan ahead. Worldwide, the number of emergencies and disasters is rising. This trend is certain to continue as urbanization crowds people together on unsafe sites and climate change brings more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. We need to anticipate a growing number of areas that will become disaster-prone.
Abundant experience demonstrates the tremendous pay-off, also at the political level, when hospitals remain standing and functioning as beacons of security and solidity in the midst of disaster and despair. We must never forget: hospitals and health facilities represent a significant investment. Keeping them safe in emergencies protects that investment, while also protecting the health and safety of people – our foremost concern.