PAHO/WHO Regional Health Emergency Response Team

Many countries in the Americas can, and have already dealt with the health impact of small or medium-size emergency situations using local resources and staff. However, major sudden-impact disasters completely overwhelm the affected countryís capacity to respond. Worse yet, when a disaster occurs simultaneously in several countries, it limits the capacity of any one country to respond to its own needs, let alone to assist its neighbors. The problem is not exclusive to this Region. Even large countries can require external assistance from specialized public health experts, as was the case following the earthquake and tsunami in South Asia.

In order to respond effectively in these situations, PAHO/WHO has hundreds of public health experts stationed in PAHO/WHO member countries. In emergencies and crises, PAHO deploys a regional emergency response team to meet the health needs of the affected population.

A wide variety of experts, including specialists in:

  • epidemiology
  • water and sanitation
  • information and communication
  • laboratories and health services
  • immunization

are available at a momentís notice to make an authoritative diagnosis of health needs for external assistance; provide technical advice on post-disaster health issues; establish an emergency operations center and work with national authorities to coordinate the overall health response.

What is the Team up to?

A Little History

For more than two decades, PAHO has worked with a small team of health professionals, originally based in Caribbean countries, to respond to disasters that exceed a countryís capacity to deal with the health consequences. However, in 2004 the impact and frequency of the hurricanes that struck the region exceeded the teamís limited response capacity. A lack of appropriate logistical and communication equipment also significantly reduced effectiveness. Hurricane Mitch was also a disaster of overwhelming proportions in Central America, and PAHO mobilized 50 international experts from unaffected countries to deal with the health aspects.

It quickly became apparent that the number of professionals and the diversity of disciplines that make up this team must be increased; training for team members must be stepped up; and procedures re-written to ensure better mobilization to respond to regional needs.

In 2006, PAHO/WHO began to expand the capacity and flexibility of its Disaster Response Team. PAHO staff and experts region wide were selected to be a part of the team. Many of these experts have provided ad hoc assistance in areas such as damage and needs assessment, water quality monitoring, epidemiological surveillance and vector control.

Once selected, team members will:

  • Participate in training workshops and simulation exercises 
  • Learn about the collection, analysis and management of post-disaster information
  • Understand the procedures for the UN Flash Appeal and other funding mechanisms
  • Become familiar with the technical and administrative procedures

Tools for the Response Team

Field Manual: This manual describes deployment of the Disaster Response Team, its objectives, and responsibilities at different stages of an emergency. It explains the process of mobilizing resources and provides practical information for work in the field. The manual includes evaluation forms and checklists than can be of help to those advising PAHO/WHO offices and health sector agencies and institutions when they respond to emergencies or disasters.

Communications Guide: This manual focuses on operational aspects of disaster and emergency response as well as preparing for disasters. It addresses plans for communicating with the public during emergencies and techniques for producing, exchanging, and distributing information for humanitarian organizations. Communication is most effective when information management is linked to information exchange and social communication techniques and processes.