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Area on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters:
A Public Health Priority

Disaster Reduction: a PAHO/WHO Priority

Disasters are, first and foremost, a social and health issue. In the last decade, more than 24 million persons in Latin America and the Caribbean have lost their lives, loved ones, homes, workplaces and possessions to natural or manmade disasters. Disasters have damaged or destroyed hospitals and health facilities, leaving many without access to health services. The direct cost of these losses has been estimated at US$3.12 billion.

Reducing vulnerability to disasters is a public health priority and therefore a responsibility of the Pan American Health Organization, Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization. Disaster preparedness, management and response figure as priorities in PAHO’s Strategic Plan 2003-07. The health sector must be prepared not only to meet the health needs of disaster victims but also to work to change behavior and practices that cause vulnerability and have repercussions on public health.

Reducing the impact of disasters is essential to meeting
the Millennium Development Goals and is a social
and political requirement in its own right.

PAHO/WHO’s Work in Disaster Reduction

Disaster Preparedness
Preparing the health sector to face disasters is a permanent and ongoing responsibility. Disaster preparedness efforts enhance the capacity of the health sector to respond to all types of disasters, create awareness of the associated public health risks and improve the knowledge and skills of all health actors. Technical areas of work include information dissemination and management, hospital disaster preparedness, mass casualty management, evaluation of damage and needs, and humanitarian supply management.

Risk Reduction
PAHO/WHO encourages the Ministries of Health to promote a national culture of disaster prevention. Its own technical contribution focuses on the safety of health facilities. As an example, countries are urged to use existing knowledge and tools to build new hospitals with a level of protection that helps ensure they remain operational in disaster situations. They are also encouraged to examine the vulnerability of existing health facilities and incorporate appropriate disaster mitigation measures. PAHO/WHO applies this same strategic approach to risk reduction in water and sewerage systems to safeguard this critical infrastructure.

Disaster Response
In disaster situations, PAHO/WHO mobilizes its extensive network of public health experts to survey damage and provide an authoritative assessment of health sector needs, conduct epidemiological surveillance, detect potential health risks, monitor water quality and improve the overall coordination and leadership in the health sector. The humanitarian supply management system, SUMA, is activated to help bring order to the chaos that often results from the massive influx of international aid. PAHO/WHO also captures and publishes the lessons learned from major disasters in an attempt to improve the management of future emergency situations.

What PAHO/WHO Offers

At any given time, there is an enormous number and variety of urgent public health problems requiring the attention of governments and organizations of all types. And from a technical standpoint, the solution to many of these disaster risk reduction problems already exists and is within reach, even in the case of low-income countries. PAHO/WHO’s principal challenge, then, is to persuade decision-makers of the need to invest in risk reduction initiatives now, prior to a disaster, so that the know-how is in place for saving the maximum number of lives possible during the event itself and reducing the risks to which the population will be exposed in the days and months following. In a word, there is no substitute for demonstrating political willpower and commitment and developing a solid, effective disaster preparedness capacity appropriate to local circumstances.

Technical Information Services
The countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have accumulated a great deal of experience in all aspects of disaster management and risk reduction. PAHO/WHO has transformed this wealth of expertise into a wide variety of technical information products and services, all of which are available in print format, on CD-ROM, downloadable from the Internet and included in the Virtual Disaster Library.

Our web site combines news and information for the disaster community worldwide, contact points in Latin America and the Caribbean, technical guidelines, a photo gallery and disaster management tools. PAHO/WHO also supports the Regional Disaster Information Center, CRID, which is sponsored by the government of Costa Rica and five other international agencies. The CRID offers access to more than 3,000 full-text publications and documents on disaster and risk reduction and provides technical and training support for libraries and information centers.

Visit the
Publications Catalog


Training and Capacity Building
Effective disaster management relies more on solid human resources than on equipment and technology. The frequent turnover of staff at the country level demands ongoing training and education efforts to maintain the required level of awareness, skills and commitment to risk reduction. PAHO/WHO actively supports a variety of training opportunities, including those aimed at senior disaster experts to enhance management skills and to improve knowledge and capacity in new areas such as planning, assessment of health needs, preparedness for chemical accidents, risk reduction for health services and more.

Partnerships to Safeguard Health
When disaster strikes, protecting the health of all people is a collective responsibility. PAHO/WHO supports the Ministries of Health and is committed to achieving and maintaining their leadership role in the formulation of disaster management and risk reduction policies. PAHO/WHO also promotes inter-country collaboration and mutual assistance agreements and establishes memoranda of understanding with a wide variety of international and regional agencies.
One example of these collaborative agreements is the support provided to the Logistics Support System, a joint venture of WHO, WFP, OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR and PAHO to promote a transparent and coordinated approach to humanitarian supply management.

Who We Serve

The Pan American Health Organization has 35 Member Governments in the Western Hemisphere. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization. To improve the health and wellbeing of the entire population of the Americas, PAHO/WHO works through the Ministries of Health, and in the area of disaster reduction, with the health sector disaster programs in these Ministries. The health sector encompasses a broad group of actors including social security systems, the Red Cross, private medical services, NGOs and others, who are also included in technical cooperation activities.

Contact Us

Pan American Health Organization
Area on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

525 Twenty-third Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037, USA
Tel: (202) 974-3434
Fax: (202) 775-4578
PAHO Subregional
Disaster Office in Panama
Casa 843 A y B
Ave. Arnoldo Cano Arosemena
Ciudad del Saber
Corregimiento de Ancón, Panamá
Tel: (507) 317-0971; 317-1124; 317-1120
Fax: (507) 317-0600
PAHO Subregional
Disaster Office in Barbados
P. O. Box 508
Bridgetown, Barbados
Tel: (246) 436-6448
Fax: (246) 436-6447
PAHO Subregional
Disaster Office in Ecuador
Apartado Postal 17-07-8982
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: (593-2) 2460-277; 2460-274
Fax: (593-2) 2256-174