Humanitarian Assistance Webcast 10: Public Health and Humanitarian Crisis

August 30, 2012 - 9:30am - 11:00am
Cambridge, MA, United States

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Despite improvements in the coordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance in recent decades, armed conflict remains a leading public health concern. Mortality rates have declined in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP), but overcrowding in camps, limited supplies of potable water, and poor sanitation have still contributed to some of the worst outbreaks of communicable diseases in history.

Furthermore, some humanitarian professionals have expressed concern that health-care provision in conflict is based on an outmoded model of humanitarian relief. Changes in geopolitics, global economic growth, and demographics have altered the profile of contexts in which armed conflict occurs. Conflict-affected countries increasingly have higher incomes, higher life expectancy, and a higher burden of non-communicable diseases. Violence occurs more frequently against a backdrop of urbanization and ageing populations. And intrastate conflicts have swelled the number of IDPs while the refugee population has gradually decreased. Endemic diseases, more prevalent in such scenarios, result in far greater morbidity and mortality than some epidemic diseases, and yet are often neglected during emergency responses.

For professionals in humanitarian assistance and protection, reducing excess mortality is the immediate goal. Though existing guidelines provide minimum standards for health services, they do not address the underlying social and environmental determinants of disease. Humanitarian policymakers continually struggle to apply these standards to different contexts. When weighing numerous considerations — including the feasibility, maximum opportunity benefit, minimum opportunity cost, maximum effectiveness, maximum cost-effectiveness, and timeliness of various intervention options — technical questions can quickly morph into major ethical dilemmas.

In this context, this Humanitarian Assistance Webcast will address the following questions:

  1. Should humanitarians define certain health factors — such as excess morbidity and excess mortality — on a context-specific basis?
  2. Should humanitarian organizations provide medical care that would not be available during peacetime?
  3. In a protracted crisis, how can humanitarians devise a health-care system that does not create dependency on foreign assistance?

Panelists: Johan von Schreeb, MD, PhD (Karolinska Institutet) Michael Van Rooyen, MD, MPH, FACEP (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative) Enrique Steiger, MD (SwissCross)

Further Reading:



Refugee Specific:

Mental Health Specific:


Assessment Tools:

In partnership with:

The objective of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) is to enhance the knowledge of NGOs and other relevant actors operating in the humanitarian field, and to create greater awareness of the relationship between development cooperation and humanitarian operations in complex political emergencies.