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Health in emergencies

© UNICEF/HQ99-0620/ Pirozzi
18-month-old Nabil Rebh receives oxygen from a tank while his mother sits beside him on the bed comforting him and another woman stands at her own child's bedside. Basra, Iraq.

UNICEF Health in Emergencies Brief 

All disasters, whether natural, large scale epidemics or based on conflict are health issues, affecting the health of the populations and bringing about substantial loss and disruption to public health systems.  In low income countries, where national health budgets and systems are already unable to meet basic public health needs, and in fragile and post-conflict/disaster contexts, even relatively minor shocks can overwhelm the coping capacity of the health system and communities. Apart from the direct impact from hazards such as trauma and injuries, disasters exacerbate the most common causes of childhood illness and death including diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria, malnutrition and neonatal causes due to disruption of health systems and essential services.  In addition fragile or disrupted essential services such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH), food and nutrition, health systems, shelter and population movements can put communities at risk of epidemic-prone diseases and malnutrition. As 30 – 50 per cent of fatalities arising from disasters are children, reducing disaster risk is a key issue for UNICEF.


How does UNICEF Help?

The main objectives of UNICEF’s emergency health interventions are to provide support to governments and partners across the continuum from development, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. UNICEF through its Core Commitments for Children in Emergencies (CCCs) provides a framework to ensure the children and women have access to quality maternal, newborn and early childhood health care from the household to community level and health facilities in   collaboration with partners focusing on:

Priority interventions targeted at the most common causes of under 5 mortality:

·         Vaccination of children against measles with vitamin A and polio and quickly re-establishing national vaccination programs, including critical inputs such as cold chain equipment, operational support, training and social mobilization;

·         Establishing preventive and curative health services targeted to priority under 5 illnesses (pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, malnutrition and newborn causes) as well as obstetrical care, mental health and HIV services according to the context through clinic based and outreach services, mobile clinics, community health worker programs such as integrated community case management (iCCM) and home-based care;

·         Providing health education for prevention, home based care and care seeking for priority maternal, newborn and childhood illness.

Prevention and control of diseases of epidemic potential including:  

·         Participation in coordination mechanisms such as disease taskforces with linkages with other critical sectors such as WaSH, nutrition, communication for development (C4D), protection and education;

·         Input and support for early warning, alert and response systems/surveillance with close linkages particularly to UNICEF, WaSH and C4D programs;

·         Input into risk and needs assessments and the development of preparedness and response plans bringing in UNICEF’s community based health programs and other critical sectors;

·         Support to prevention and case management through UNICEF sectors and services such as community-based health and vaccination programs, WaSH, nutrition, education and protection programs;

·         Communication, social mobilization and community engagement through UNICEF’s C4D programs and risk communication strategies.

How does UNICEF operationalize these services?

·         Developing partnerships with governments and implementing partners;

·         Building capacity through training and the distribution of international evidence based standards and tools;

·         Provision of essential drugs, emergency health kits and essential supplies through UNICEF’s Supply Division (SD);

·         Human resource capacity through internal surge mechanisms and standby partners;

·         Fast track processes through UNICEF’s simplified procedures in emergencies including advocacy, emergency funds and resource mobilization strategies;

·         Overall emergency response operations and humanitarian performance monitoring (HPM) through UNICEF’s emergency operations services.

Together with its various partners and as an essential partner to several emergency working groups UNICEF participates in coordination activities, the development of policies strategies, guidelines and advocacy at the global, regional and country levels. With its substantial operational presence in most countries at national and sub-national levels, UNICEF has a major role to play in ensuring a coherent and effective health response in emergencies.

UNICEF monitors and evaluates its activities in emergencies to ensure that it meets international quality standards in humanitarian response. UNICEF ensures that its emergency health interventions are linked with longer term efforts towards scaling up child survival activities, particularly in countries with high mortality in children under five years of age.

Relevant documents:




Fact sheets

UNICEF's guiding principles in emergencies (pop-up)

Snapshots: UNICEF's recent health activities in emergencies (pop-up)

Global partnerships

UNICEF's Office of Emergency Programmes (EMOPS) is the institutional focal point for emergency assistance, humanitarian policies, staff security and coordination with other humanitarian partner organizations.

UNICEF works closely in emergencies with the World Health Organization (WHO) (external link) , the World Food Programme (external link) and other UN agencies as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (external link).

The Sphere Project (external link), launched by a group of humanitarian agencies including UNICEF, has developed a Humanitarian Charter and universal minimum standards for assistance: water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning and health services.

In the case of an epidemic outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease, UNICEF, as one of the world’s largest buyers of vaccines, can respond quickly to raising vaccine demands in a certain country. UNICEF is a member of the International Coordinating Group (external link) on vaccine provision for epidemic meningitis outbreak.

External links open in a new window and take you to a non-UNICEF web site.

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