Stronger local health systems are needed to protect health in emergencies

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Geneva -- The community-based health workforce plays a vital role in building local resilience to disasters and should be scaled-up to protect public health from the increasing number of emergencies around the world, reads the Joint Statement issued by a group of United Nations and international agencies and partnerships.

“A prepared, active and well-organized community and its volunteers can reduce risks and soften the impact of emergencies”, says Stefan Seebacher, Head of the Health Department at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, one of the organizations that has developed the Joint Statement. “Because many lives are saved in the first hours following an emergency, well before external help arrives, we also want to give recognition to all local actors and to include them in planning for all types of emergencies”.

This Joint Statement was launched in the Featured Event on Health at the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, a four-day biennial event taking place on 9 to 13 May in Geneva.

It was produced by the Global Health Workforce Alliance, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNHCR, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization.

By issuing the Statement, these organizations call on governments and on all health partners to strengthen the capacity of the community-based health workforce and local health systems.

The community-based health workforce consists of all actors at the community level that promote health and provide primary health care (PHC) services. This includes community health workers, trained volunteers, local organizations and other actors in health-related areas.

“Health systems and partners can improve health outcomes by giving greater support to community-based health workers who operate on the frontline in health risk reduction, response and recovery from disasters,” says Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO Assistant Director-General for Polio Eradication, Emergency Preparedness and Response, and Country Focus.

Vital role before and after disaster

Before an emergency, the community-based health workforce contributes to reducing underlying vulnerability by increasing access to PHC, preventing disease and preparing households, communities and local health systems for emergencies.

Actions after an emergency include providing priority PHC services, community-based surveillance and early warning of diseases of epidemic potential, first aid and basic life support, psychosocial support and educating and mobilizing communities.

Together these actions contribute to building individual and community resilience to the detrimental impact of emergencies and disasters on health.

Countries can strengthen existing health systems and health emergency risk management programmes by adopting and promoting policies and programmes that support the community-based health workforce and by mobilizing the necessary resources to identify, train, supervise, equip, and provide essential supplies to local health workers.