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Protecting hospitals and health centres before disasters saves lives

Note for the media

The destruction of hundreds of hospitals and clinics in Pakistan's ongoing floods, Haiti's earthquake and other disasters underscores the threats faced by health services today in urban areas throughout the world, and the need to ensure such facilities can withstand emergencies and keep saving lives. To mark today's International Day for Disaster Reduction, WHO is calling on governments and the international community to take measures that ensure existing and new health facilities are resilient enough to survive earthquakes, floods, cyclones and other hazardous events.

"Hospitals, clinics and other health facilities are the foundation of any health response to be launched to save the lives of people injured when their city is struck by a disaster," says Dr Eric Laroche, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises. "But we see too often that when disasters happen, health facilities and the staff who work in them count among the casualties."

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) system, which includes governments, UN agencies, civil society groups and financial bodies, is marking this year's International Day for Disaster Reduction with the theme "Making Cities Resilient".

More than 500 hospitals and clinics have been damaged and destroyed in flood-affected areas of Pakistan, including urban areas, while scores of health facilities were severely damaged by Haiti's 12 January earthquake which centred on the country's capital, Port-au-Prince. Such damage restricts the ability to deliver health care both in affected cities and elsewhere in the country.

To protect hospitals and health centres from disasters, WHO recommends:

  • national authorities and funding agencies protect significant investments in health infrastructure by locating new hospitals in safe areas not prone to disasters and constructing them in compliance with building standards;
  • local governments assess the safety of existing health facilities before disasters occur and highlight measures, such as retrofitting, that should be taken to safeguard them;
  • hospital managers ensure that emergency preparedness programmes are in place and staff are trained for their critical roles when an emergency strikes; and
  • development of response plans and systems that ensure all public, private and community sectors, including health, emergency services and transport, know how to coordinate and work effectively in disasters to minimize loss of life and suffering.

When a hospital is rendered inoperative during a disaster, the loss of emergency services makes it more difficult to save lives. Moreover, for every failed hospital, on average 200 000 people are deprived of health care for months and sometimes years. Recent evaluations of 327 hospitals in 17 countries in the Americas using the "Hospital Safety Index" found that only 36% of assessed hospitals had a high probability of remaining functional following a disaster. About 16% of hospitals in the Americas required urgent measures because they were considered unlikely to protect the lives of patients and health personnel in a disaster.

While the impact of Haiti's earthquake on health care systems was widely reported and assessed by the international community, Chilean hospitals and clinics withstood an even stronger earthquake a month later. On 27 February, 79 of 130 hospitals in quake-affected areas of Chile were damaged, for a total loss of some 4 700 hospital beds. Most Chilean hospitals that suffered serious damage were older structures that had not been upgraded to reduce their vulnerabilities to disasters. Many of these were near, and in some cases just metres away from new hospitals that had been built to "safe hospital" standards and suffered little or no damage. This highlights that health services could be built to withstand disasters and continue to function, as well as potentially save lives.

For more information, please contact:

Paul Garwood
Communications Officer
Health Action in Crises
World Health Organization
Telephone: +41 22 791 3462
Mobile: +41-794755546
E-mail: garwoodp@who.int

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