CDM - Health

When we think about disasters, our first concern is usually for the safety and wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones – and rightfully so. Disasters can affect our health in many different ways. We can be hurt directly when the hazard passes (injuries are caused from falling debris cause trauma, fractures and even amputations). Persons can get sick from dirty water or food and later on, many people become depressed or have mental breakdowns. Emergencies can also damage the hospitals and clinics which are needed to help treat the sick and injured – which in turn can cause people to die, just because medical help was unavailable.

It is a fact that the poorest persons are the most likely to be affected by the health problems during and after an emergency. These are the persons who cannot afford private medical attention, ensure that their food and water is the best quality and may live in hazard prone areas where they are likely to be hurt. In poor communities, there is also a lack of access to healthy and safe environments, poor education and risk awareness, and limited coping capacity.

A population’s vulnerability to a disaster depends many different things, such as the population size and wealth, the pace of development, whether or not persons live in hazard prone areas, the destruction of the environment and climate change.


  • Ten months after the January Haitian earthquake in 2010, an outbreak of cholera spread across the island. More than 2000 persons were reported to have the disease. This was the first cholera outbreak to hit the country for the 21st century.
  • In India, on December 3, 1984, more than 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas and other unknown poisons, were released from a chemical plant called Union Carbide. Turning the area surrounding the facility into a virtual gas chamber, the incident claimed an immediate 8,000 fatalities; some 170,000 residents were treated in hospital. The total number of deaths from the accident is presently estimated to be between 16,000 and 30,000. However, more than 20 years after the disaster it is reported that more than 15,000 are still chronically affected.
  • In 1995, the eruption of Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand resulted in several ash falls on many communities. An increase of bronchitis was detected even with such a small amount of ash.

Response and Prevention

For the most part, governments are responsible for making sure that the health sector is prepared for an emergency. This type of preparation deals mainly with official disaster offices and public health infrastructure. However, with planning, costly and ineffective interventions can be avoided.

Improvisation and rush always come with a high price, and there are many things health officials ought to avoid—use of foreign health professionals; emergency airlifting of food, water, and supplies that often are available locally or that remain in storage for long periods of time; the tendency to adopt dramatic measures— all contribute to making disaster relief one of the least cost effective health activities.

The public can make sure that they don’t put themselves in harm’s way by preparing disaster plans for their families and communities. The need for preparedness cannot be stressed enough. Here are some steps that should to be followed when preparing the health sector for disaster:

  • Identifying the country’s vulnerability to natural or other hazards;
  • Building simple and realistic health scenarios of a possible occurrence of any hazard;
  • Reducing the damage to water supplies is also important, and requires cross-sectoral coordination.
  • Maintaining close collaborations with the main sectors that may have to help during an emergency;
  • Sensitizing and training the first health responders and managers to face the special challenges of responding to disasters.
  • Preventing and mitigating the damage to health facilities is important. Reducing the physical vulnerability of the building can take place when reconstructing the infrastructure destroyed by a disaster, when planning new infrastructure, or when strengthening existing facilities.
  • Mitigation of damage to hospitals aims to ensure the continuing operation of the health facility, so that some basic services will continue uninterrupted in the event of a disaster.
  • Effective treatment of mass casualties depends on local preparedness and requires triage of patients to treat those most likely to benefit first.
  • Surveillance, prevention, and control of contagious diseases during disasters should be strengthened by quickly resuming the routine control programs.
  • Prioritizing environmental health—water quality, vector control, excreta disposal, solid waste management, health education, and food safety—is essential, especially in temporary settlements.

Donations and supplies must be transparently managed to improve the flow of assistance to intended beneficiaries.

back to top

CDEMA Logo EU Logo
Earthquake Logo Tsunami Logo Flood Logo Hurricane Logo