Many large-scale disasters attract broad coverage by the international media and images of death and destruction circulate the globe in just a matter of minutes. At times these images can be out of proportion with the actual situation at the disaster site, but unfortunately, the media may believe that this is what their "clients" want to see.
When this happens, it is difficult to convince people in non-affected countries who read or see them that the health and medical needs are being met locally. This can and will prompt both the local authorities in a disaster-stricken country to request external medical teams and well-intentioned countries and organizations to dispatch them to offer care for the victims.
The following do’s and don’ts apply to both offers to provide medical teams from outside the disaster-affected area and to requests to send these teams.
- Clearly differentiate between the immediate life-saving needs for search, rescue and emergency medical care on the one hand, and the type of health assistance required for longer-term rehabilitation on the other. Each requires a distinct policy and strategic approach.
- Ascertain whether the outside medical team can become operational during the "golden hours" (the first 24 hours), in time to save lives. A lack of medical attention to disaster victims is often caused by logistical problems (access to the site, transportation, weather, etc.) rather than by a lack of medical volunteers. In this case, external medical teams will only compounding the problem.
- When a lack of health human resources is the problem (rather than logistical or operational constraints), target requests for assistance to neighboring countries or other states in the subregion.
- Offer or accept only medical volunteers and teams that meet the following criteria:
- Sponsored by a well-known agency that can vouch for their qualifications.
Familiarity with the language, culture, and level of technology appropriate to the situation.
- Self-supported and able to work without sophisticated support.
- Willing and able to remain for a reasonable period of time.
- Inform the mass media, diplomatic missions, consulates, and other agencies of these criteria and policies and clarify issues of registration, liability, coverage, and supervision before requesting or accepting medical or health teams.
- Don’t rush to request, accept, or send medical emergency teams in sudden-impact natural disasters. They often arrive too late to address the immediate life-threatening medical consequences of the disaster.
- Don’t issue blanket or global appeals for medical personnel. Rather, target your requests to suitable neighboring or subregional countries.
- Don’t let your policy be dictated by international media coverage and the eagerness of external groups to take part in the action.
- For the health authorities or NGOs in the affected country, don’t issue an indiscriminate plea, for example, "send any medical assistance you can." In the past, such pleas have hampered rather than helped assistance to victims.
Department of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief
Tel: (202) 974-3434