Health in times of disaster

Image: IFRC
Health in times of disaster & our work throughout the world

Every year, disasters endanger the lives and health of millions of people. The Red Cross works continuously to reduce disease and deaths and to improve health and human dignity in catastrophes.

During the past decade, disasters have affected the lives of three million people. More than one million people have been killed as a result of them and financial losses are around one trillion dollars (World Disasters Report 2009).

The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and their millions of volunteers play an important role when disaster strikes. Victims receive first aid quickly and long-term health programmes help them to recuperate and to prepare for future disasters.

Natural disasters

The consequences are devastating when an earthquake, flood or storm hits a vulnerable community. The crisis stage caused by the disaster easily prolongs when poverty, infectious disease and poor infrastructure are part of everyday life.

The Red Cross primarily saves lives and tries to prevent and respond to health problems caused by disasters. At the same time, it helps communities to recover from disasters and build a safer future through disaster preparedness programmes.

Haiti: Earthquake 2010

On Tuesday 12 December 2010, one of the most destructive disasters in world history struck Haiti: An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale. in which 225,000 people died and 300,000 were injured.

A total of 21 emergency response units were quickly sent to Haiti. More than 1,000 delegates worked under the symbols of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and 124 Red Cross or Red Crescent organisations helped Haiti in the form of delegates, aid materials or financial aid. 

In addition to tents and other materials, more than one million different aid items were delivered. Two hundred and seventeen thousand patients were treated, more than 150,000 were vaccinated and 317,000 were permanently included in the delivery of clean water.

Almost 50,000 were temporarily employed in Red Cross projects. More than half a million Haitians received general hygiene education and almost 300,000 benefited from various community health projects.
Some 1.2 million Haitians received warnings and educational messages from the Red Cross, such as storm alerts, instructions on better hygiene and how to prevent cholera from spreading.


Diarrhoea, meningitis, yellow fever, respiratory infections, polio and several other infectious disease epidemics kill enormous numbers of people every year. An outbreak of an epidemic is more likely in underdeveloped countries where the living conditions are poor and there are lots of people. Difficult circumstances make it even more difficult to control the epidemic and arrange efficient healthcare. 

In cases of epidemics, the Red Cross always seeks to complement the work of health authorities and works in close cooperation with UN organisations, amongst others. Red Cross volunteers play a pivotal role in preventing the spread of disease. In addition, they ensure that those who fall ill get medical attention. 

Zimbabwe: Cholera epidemic

Cholera started to spread in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, in August 2008. The epidemic that spread through contaminated drinking water started in the suburbs with poor water supply and sewerage. Within a year, 4,300 people were killed and almost one hundred thousand became infected. The epidemic also spread partially to the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe with travelling people.

After the outbreak of the epidemic, the Zimbabwean Red Cross started to fight against the disease by enhancing education. Volunteers distributed water purification tablets, soap and water containers to people living in the risk areas. Aid programmes were also started in some of the neighbouring countries.

The Finnish Red Cross supported this aid programme by sending a mobile health clinic with staff to East Zimbabwe in December 2008. With a subsidy from the Foreign Ministry, medicines were provided to health centres and blankets distributed to those in the poorest situations.

After the epidemic was past its peak, the Finnish Red Cross helped the Zimbabwean Red Cross to start a health education programme. Almost 480 volunteers were trained to provide information on the prevention of cholera and other infectious diseases as well as good hygiene.

The aid from the Zimbabwean Red Cross and its international supporters reached more than one million people in total. Treating the sick quickly was important, as with good care, only less than one per cent of those infected with cholera will die.