PAHO supports countries in the Americas to prepare health systems ahead of hurricane season

9 Jun 2023

Washington D.C., June 9, 2023 (PAHO)- As hurricane season begins, and with the possible arrival of El Niño in the Americas, PAHO has brought together representatives from the Region's ministries of health to ensure that the health sector is better prepared to respond to these events that affect millions of people each year.

Extreme hydrometeorological events, such as hurricanes, torrential rainfall and resulting floods and landslides, are a constant threat to the region. According to data from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CERD), these events have led to 57% of emergencies in the Americas, affecting more than 175 million people.

This year, countries including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru have already reported such events, which have a significant impact on health systems, food and water security, ecosystems, infrastructure and the economy.

"The El Niño phenomenon and the hurricane season are a call for us to look at where we are as a health sector, what the possible scenarios might be if we are faced with heavy rains and hurricanes, and what measures we need to take,” Leonardo Hernández, head of PAHO's Emergency Operations Unit said.

These include updating and revising hospital and health network contingency plans, evacuating health centers that could suffer structural damage, ensuring the procurement and strategic placement of essential medical supplies, redeploying health personnel to cope with a sudden increase in demand for care, and preparing communication materials on the prevention of health risks.

2023 Hurricane Season

Rodney Martinez, representative from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), shared the forecast for the 2023 hurricane season, indicating that hurricane activity is expected to be close to average in the Atlantic this year, but above-normal in the Pacific.

Juan Jose Nieto, from the International Center for El Niño Research (CIIFEN), underscored that "it is highly probable that an El Niño event will develop during the second half of this year", and anticipates above-normal rainfall in some countries, and a concurrent decrease in rainfall in other parts of the continent.

The impact of extreme weather events on health includes water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea or cholera, vector-borne diseases, such as dengue, Chikungunya, as well as respiratory diseases, among others.

Experience sharing and tools for risk management

The virtual meeting convened by PAHO also provided an opportunity for Belize and Colombia to exchange experiences on the health sector response to tropical storm Lisa in 2022 and to floods in La Mojana, in the Colombian department of Sucre, respectively.

PAHO experts also shared tools and methodologies for conducting health emergency risk assessments (STAR), as well as rapid public health risk assessments for strategic planning purposes.

"Given the accumulated vulnerabilities in the region following the COVID-19 pandemic, a major hurricane does not have to occur for there to be a serious health problem," warned Hernández. "So it is important that health sectors prepare now in order to provide a timely and effective response in each country.”