WHO and UNICEF today called on governments to strengthen risk reduction measures in four key areas so that health and education systems are able to cope with disasters, including the risks from climate change. These areas are:
- Building school and health infrastructure according to disaster resilience standards;
- Conducting assessment of the safety of hospitals and schools and taking remedial action to make them safer;
- Ensuring all hospitals and schools implement emergency and disaster preparedness programmes, including staff training and exercises; and
- Educating, training and involving communities in disaster risk reduction.
WHO and UNICEF highlighted these issues during the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, a key gathering of the world's risk reduction community organized by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in Geneva. The High Level Panel on Safe Schools and Hospitals, jointly organized by UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO and World Bank, covered the experience of France, Mexico, Philippines and Tajikistan in making hospitals and schools safer from disasters and emphasized the vital role that scientific evidence plays.
Disasters have a major health, educational, economic, physical, and psychosocial impact on the most vulnerable, notably children, women and aged persons. Disasters can destroy human lives and damage hospital and school infrastructure, disrupt educational cycles, exacerbate poverty, force children to drop out of school, and affect the resiliency of communities.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which caused some 240 000 deaths in Asian and African countries, raised global awareness about the importance of disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness.
The massive earthquake that struck China's Sichuan province in 2008 left 88 000 people dead or missing, 400 000 injured, and 11 000 hospitals damaged or destroyed. Over 12 000 schools or 40% of all schools in Sichuan were damaged, resulting in thousands of children being killed or injured. These events highlight growing concern over the effects of disasters on education and health.
Protecting education, health essential
Risk reduction is imperative for both education and for health. It may be possible to build better after a disaster, but it is not possible to replace lost lives or to restore health completely.
Children are among the most at risk and around 175 000 children annually will be affected by disasters. In recent years, large numbers of schools have been destroyed by disasters resulting in the loss of lives of children and the stalling of access to education. Children also suffer from the psychosocial effects of disasters, thus hindering children's opportunities. Education protects lives and safeguards development gains.
"The destruction and carnage inflicted on hospitals, schools, and the people who use them are senseless losses that could have been prevented in many cases," said Dr Eric Laroche, WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises. "Such tragedies can be avoided or reduced if governments adopt disaster risk reduction strategies aimed at protecting people's health. One prime way of doing this is making hospitals safer by enforcing and implementing building codes to ensure quality construction, training staff to be prepared for emergencies and assessing existing health facilities to learn what, if any, vulnerabilities they may have."
The health sector and partners are focusing on the protection of health facilities, health workers and patients from disasters during the 2008-2009 World Disaster Reduction Campaign for making hospitals safe from disasters. Mexico has demonstrated that it is possible to make hospitals safer by applying a hospital safety index to hundreds of hospitals and then making them more resilient and better prepared to respond to emergencies and disasters.
"The school must be a safe place that protects children and defends their right to education," said Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF's Director of the Office of Emergency Programmes. "However, children can also serve as powerful protagonists for change. The integration of disaster risk reduction into the school curriculum equips children with knowledge of the risks and what actions can be taken to mitigate the risks. Education is therefore an important aspect of risk reduction. Not only is it a child's right, but education also protects lives and safeguards development gains."
UNICEF and WHO are members of the UNISDR system and advocate globally for the protection of schools and hospitals from disasters. The current biennial World Disaster Reduction Campaign organized by UNISDR is devoted to the theme "Hospitals safe from disasters". The previous campaign during 2006-2007 was devoted to the theme "Disaster risk reduction begins at schools". WHO is also focusing its 2009 World Health Day on the theme "Save lives. Make hospitals safe in emergencies."