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Planning for disasters across the globe: Health must be part of the discussion

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I recently spoke to delegates at PHE’s national conference to argue that there has never been a better time to ensure ‘health’ features in every nation’s plans to reduce the impact of disasters.

You might feel that this goes without saying, but until last year previous international frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) weren’t explicit enough about health.

2015 however was a landmark year which saw the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Financing for Development Agreement (which plans for how the implementation of these ambitious agreements will be funded).

I’m pleased to say that the UK played a role in the development of each of these agreements and used its excellent record in ensuring the involvement of health-sectors in planning for emergencies to make sure this important aspect of DRR was covered throughout the texts.

Crucial to all of this and to achieving the many targets listed in the 2015 landmark agreements is the recognition that policy making should be informed by science.

And because disasters don’t recognise national borders – the emphasis must be on international collaboration to develop policies which are based on international scientific research.

Ensuring DRR policy was influenced by science within the Sendai Framework is something I have focused on as Vice Chair of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (UNISDR STAG).

So how can the Sendai Framework bring new impetus to all of our preparations?

Firstly, health resilience is strongly promoted throughout the Sendai Framework which is very welcome given the relative lack of attention to health issues in its predecessor, the Hyogo framework for action 2005–2015.

There are more than 30 explicit references to health, referring to the implementation of an all-hazards approach to managing disaster risk, including links to epidemics and pandemics, several references to the International Health Regulations (2005) and to rehabilitation as part of disaster recovery.

If implemented fully the frame­work could achieve a substantial reduction of disaster risk and subsequently reduce losses in lives, livelihoods and health.

Indeed, PHE’s latest strategic plan already includes a commitment to implement all of the international agreements relating to public health mentioned above as well as meet our International Health Regulations commitments.

Since the Civil Contingencies Act was enacted in 2004, the UK has continued to increase the resilience of society to disasters, with measures put in place to coordinate the actions of various levels of government and its agencies.

Here in the UK you’ll find projects such as national coordination of incidents, horizon scanning for future health risks and regular planning and exercising for known risks such as pandemic flu.

This work is never complete of course – we still have much to do and ways we can improve.

I’m privileged to be part of a team at Public Health England that continually strive to improve our efforts to promote the actions and goals laid out in the Sendai Framework, to our international partners.

The team has a strong focus on building lines of communication within the UK and globally to promote the use of cutting edge science and technology and to making this information available to policy makers.

This international communication is absolutely essential to ensure that all nations prepare to safeguard their critical health infrastructure during a disaster and integrate disaster risk reduction into local and national health systems.

At the front line, developing the capacity of health workers in understanding disasters and also supporting/training community health groups in disaster risk reduction is crucial.

Of course, all of this costs time and money.

However it’s important when working with our international partners that we continue to make the case that whilst it the initial outlay can often use time and money, it’s a necessary investment.

When weighed up against the massive recovery costs that can come as a result an unprepared system there are obvious savings to be made in terms of economic impact and impact on a population.

Editor’s note: During PHE’s national conference the blog’s author, Professor Virginia Murray, received a lifetime contribution award to mark her contribution to science/research in public health over her working life.

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