WHO helps strengthen health-system emergency preparedness following floods

Health workers provide medical care for displaced communities during floods in May 2017

Health facilities and staff are essential lifelines for communities during emergencies. The May 2017 floods in Sri Lanka highlighted the importance of developing stronger health systems that can continue to provide effective medical care in emergencies and disasters.

WHO provided technical expertise to the Ministry of Health (MoH) to strengthen the health sector emergency preparedness and response plans at the district level. Targeting the 8 districts that were hardest-hit by the floods and landslides in May 2017 (Colombo, Galle, Gampaha, Hambantota, Kalutara, Kegalle, Matara and Ratnapura.) , the revised preparedness plans will build more resilient health systems.

More than 52 participants, including Regional Directors of Health Services; Consultant Community Physicians; Medical Officers of Planning; Regional Epidemiologists; Medical Officers of Health and Supervisory Public Health Nursing Officers and Public Health Inspectors from Gampaha, Kalutara and Galle participated in technical workshops in August on developing disaster preparedness plans.

During the floods and landslides in May 2017, up to 600 000 people were affected in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces alone. 92 health institutes were directly affected.

Primary health care workers were the first to respond – assisting vulnerable populations and offering immediate medical assistance. The quick response of the field health staff made the difference between life and death in the immediate aftermath of the floods.

However, providing medical care during an emergency situation can easily overwhelm local health systems. Increased demand for medical services; lack of resources and disrupted power, communication and infrastructure create major challenges in providing effective health care services to the affected communities.

“Preparedness is the key to timely and effective response for scaling up, maintaining and sustaining health services during emergencies,” says Dr Razia Pendse, WHO Representative to Sri Lanka.

District health teams review disaster plans

Technical sessions on the fundamentals of disaster preparedness and response plans were facilitated by WHO and the Disaster Preparedness and Response Division, MoH, and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Best practices, issues, challenges and opportunities were shared and discussed among the stakeholders present. In addition, the sessions strengthened contingency plans for a variety of hazards and outlined well defined roles for health teams within the disaster response.

Risk assessment on the likely hazards, vulnerabilities and capacities of districts were done using risk assessment tools and a mapping exercise to review and revise their disaster preparedness and response plans.

“Managing the disaster response to the floods was challenging - it was the first time for me as a newcomer to the community health field,” explains Dr Vidya Ranaweera, Medical officer of Health, Bulathsinhala. “The disaster planning workshop was immensely helpful in understanding the fundamentals of emergency preparedness. We are now planning a session next month to further develop our disaster plan and to take forward the recommendations made at the workshop.”

With natural disasters and extreme weather events projected to only increase in the future due to climate change, WHO advocates for building resilient health systems that can continue to function even during disasters and emergencies. This is a priority area for WHO technical support and cooperation within the national programme.

“Health systems should be able to anticipate, respond to, cope with, recover from and adapt to climate-related shocks and stress, including extreme weather events” says Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director for WHO South-East Asia. “Enhancing disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness is critical to making this happen.”

WHO will continue to strengthen the preparedness and response capacity of the health sector and support the provision of life-saving care to communities in times of urgent need.