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Health Ministers commit to making health facilities safer

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Kathmandu, 8 September 2009: Disasters and emergencies have claimed 750 000 lives in South-East Asia between 1998 and 2009, accounting for 61.6% of all global deaths due to natural disasters. A health facility that can withstand a disaster and continue to function can be the difference between life and death.

Health Ministers from WHO's 11 Member States in South-East Asia committed themselves to making health facilities more resilient by adopting the Kathmandu Declaration on Protecting Health Facilities from Disasters. This declaration was adopted at the conclusion of the Twenty-seventh Health Minister's Meeting in Kathmandu.

Following earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and cyclones, critically injured people need immediate and appropriate medical attention. If health facilities, medical equipment and health staff succumb to the impact of the disaster, it deals a double blow to an already suffering community.

WHO's South-East Asia Region has borne the brunt of some of the worst disasters in recent times. There is a need to make hospitals in the Region disaster-resilient.

- In 2001, 3812 health facilities were destroyed in an earthquake in Gujarat, India leading to the collapse of the health infrastructure in the Kutch district. The cost of reconstruction of the health sector alone was estimated at US$60 million.

- In 2004, an earthquake and tsunami damaged 61% of health facilities in Indonesia's Aceh Province, killed 7% of its workforce and 30% of its midwives. Consequently, Aceh's primary care, maternal health and neonatal care were incapacitated.

- In 2008, Cyclone Nargis destroyed or damaged more than half of all health facilities in the Ayeyarwady and Yangon divisions of Myanmar.

The difference in cost of building a safe and an unsafe hospital is negligible, and that investment can make the difference between a community's impoverishment and long-term development. Interventions such as hazard resistant designs, adherence to building codes, preparedness planning and mock drills can all reduce the risk of physical and functional collapse of the health facility during a disaster. Even existing facilities can be made safer through reinforcement of structures.

Protecting health facilities requires wider cooperation among all sections of society. The Health Ministers also called on professional bodies, architects, engineers, business leaders and non governmental organizations, academia, the media and civil society, as well as the United Nations and global partnerships to advocate for and implement all aspects of the Kathmandu Declaration.

Member States have also taken steps to increase their response capacity. Timor-Leste, the Region's youngest nation, also announced that it will make a contribution to WHO's unique million-dollar health emergency fund. The fast and flexible disbursement mechanism of the South-East Asia Regional Health Emergency Fund (SEARHEF) has already allowed it to make a difference by providing health and humanitarian support to more than 200 000 people in the Region.

"From our history, we have seen the difference that prompt support can make to the lives of the people in humanitarian situations. That is why, today, we would like to give something back to support health in emergencies" said Dr Nelson Martins, Health Minister, Timor-Leste. "It is a unique and important fund that has already, since its inception, made a difference to the lives of those suffering humanitarian crises. In less than two years, since it was first used during Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in May 2008. We hope that it will continue to make a difference in emergencies in the Region," he added.

SEARHEF provides funds within 24 hours of a request from a government following an emergency.

Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, said that WHO was happy to receive this contribution from the Government of Timor-Leste. "SEARHEF is an important mechanism for saving lives during emergencies. This contribution from Timor-Leste symbolizes the Member State's commitment".

SEARHEF was first used following Cyclone Nargis, which claimed over 130 000 lives in Myanmar in 2008. It has since been used to provide critical health needs in a number of emergencies, including the Kosi river floods in Nepal in 2008, and most recently, in the conflict in Sri Lanka, which ended in May 2009.

For more information contact:

Dr. Roderico Ofrin, Regional Adviser, Emergency and Humanitarian Action, WHO SEARO email: ofrinr@searo.who.int; Ms Vismita Gupta-Smith, Public Information and Advocacy Officer, WHO South-East Asian Regional Office (SEARO), New Delhi, Mobile : 977- 9849361629, +91 9871329861 e-mail: guptasmithv@searo.who.int; Dr Supriya Bezbaruah, Communications and advocacy officer, Emergency and Humanitarian Action, WHO SEARO email: bezbaruahs@searo.who.int, mobile: 9958994671