Health in emergencies

During conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, children can be cut off from life-saving care.

A little boy sits on a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages.
UNICEF/UNI167587/d’Aki

During conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, children’s health needs can be neglected – to devastating effect.

Newborns, children, and mothers are often cut off from basic and essential care, including life-saving medicines and supplies. The risk of disease and malnutrition soars. And adolescents become more vulnerable to sexual violence, a situation exacerbated by the lack of critical health care and services.

Children and adolescents face other threats in emergencies. Worldwide, attacks on children have continued unabated – in their homes and their schools. Closures of health facilities and shortages of health professionals can prevent children in emergency settings from receiving treatment for injuries.

Today, one in four children live in countries affected by conflict or disaster. In many of these places, more children die from diseases linked to unsafe drinking water and sanitation than from direct violence.

Public health emergencies like Ebola and Zika also endanger people around the world, with children especially vulnerable to such outbreaks.

A woman holds a smiling baby in front of her.
UNICEF/UN0305961/Oatway
Baby Francisco Joao smiles as people displaced by Cyclone Idai celebrate the arrival of food packages at an accommodation centre in Beira, Mozambique, in 2019.

UNICEF’s response

Ensuring access to health services in humanitarian and emergency settings requires strong coordination among Governments and partners. It also requires sustainable funding, strategic planning, and capacity-building on the ground.

UNICEF works closely with Governments, UN agencies, and other partners to help countries prepare for and respond to emergencies.

Preparedness for emergencies

Even under normal conditions, public health services can be stretched thin, especially in low-income countries. Challenges magnify in the face of public health emergencies.

UNICEF helps ensure minimum preparedness measures are in place for rapid response, including measures to strengthen the newborn-health component in emergency preparedness plans, to minimize the risk of gender-based violence and to deploy human resources to affected areas. UNICEF also works to build local capacity by supporting training for the technical staff of Governments and partners.

Quality programming and standards

UNICEF helps to coordinate and align emergency response efforts in health; child protection; nutrition; communication; and water, sanitation and hygiene. We also provide quality medicines, vaccines and other health supplies to children and women during public health emergencies and other crises.

To ensure health programmes meet the highest standards, UNICEF engages affected communities in their design, planning and monitoring, and promotes safe and confidential feedback mechanisms.

Linking humanitarian response to development

When it comes to advancing development, planning for recovery can be just as critical as responding to an emergency.

UNICEF works with Governments and partners to strengthen infrastructure, develop preparedness plans and re-establish routine health services in humanitarian and emergency settings.

Community health workers are integral to building strong, resilient health systems. We also help Governments decentralize primary health care systems in areas vulnerable to natural disasters, conflicts and public health emergencies.

Coordination and partnerships 

In close collaboration with Governments and partners, UNICEF strengthens coordination efforts at the global, national and local levels. We help ensure that humanitarian responses are synchronized, timely and adhere to agreed-upon standards and benchmarks. This includes during both the assessment of the emergency and the subsequent response.

Advocacy

In line with the United Nations’ call for the protection of civilians in conflict, UNICEF advocates for the protection of all children in humanitarian settings, as well as the protection of health facilities and equipment.

Resources

Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action

Learn about this global framework for protecting the rights of children affected by humanitarian crises.


The SPHERE Handbook, 2018

This handbook documents a set of universal minimum standards in core areas of humanitarian response.


Newborn Health in Humanitarian Settings Field Guide

This field guide provides guidance and tools to support the implementation of quality newborn health services in humanitarian settings.


Scaling Up the Community-Based Health Workforce for Emergencies

Global development and health agencies jointly emphasize the vital role that the community-based health workforce plays in all phases of emergency risk management.


Child Health Task Force: Child Health in Emergencies and Humanitarian Settings

Explore this platform for partners working on child health issues in emergency and humanitarian settings.


Integrated Community Case Management in Acute and Protracted Emergencies: Case Study of South Sudan

This report documents the integrated community case management of childhood pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria in South Sudan between 2013 and 2014.