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Safe health facilities save lives

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On World Health Day 2009, the World Health Organization is focusing on the safety of health facilities which are most needed during emergencies but too often become casualties themselves. Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, emphasized the vital importance of safe health facilities that can withstand natural and manmade disasters.

The South-East Asia Region is no stranger to disasters. More than half a million people in the Region lost their lives to natural disasters between 1996 and 2005. This was nearly 58% of the world's total deaths due to natural disasters during the same period. These events also profoundly affected health facilities and the communities that depend on them. In Aceh, Indonesia, 61% of health facilities were damaged or completely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. More recently, cyclone Nargis in Myanmar destroyed 57% of public health facilities in the affected areas. The damage to thousands of health facilities in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India cost around $US 60 million to repair.

Health facilities and the infrastructure that supports them both need to be strengthened so that they can continue to provide essential services to the injured. "Health facilities need to be structurally strong to ensure that buildings do not collapse during earthquakes or cyclones. But in some cases, although a facility remains standing, it is still rendered nonfunctional. Nonstructural lifelines such as water and power supply must not fail", said Dr Plianbangchang. "A safe and functional health facility needs contingency plans and a well-trained health workforce ready to deal with emergencies", he added.

Member States in the Region have taken important steps to make health facilities safer and thereby save lives. "The Twelve Benchmarks for Emergency Preparedness" created by WHO and its Member States are a complete set of standards and checklists for making new and existing health facilities able to withstand disasters. WHO has also developed an assessment tool to measure how safe a hospital is, the Hospitals Safety Index. As part of its advocacy on the issue, WHO's South-East Asia Regional Office has launched a web-based "click-a-brick for safe hospitals" campaign linking various networks and communities to raise public awareness (see www.searo.who.int).

On this World Health Day, WHO is supporting Member States in their efforts to save lives by making health facilities safe in emergencies.