Press Releases

2005 Releases

Disaster Relief Requires Long Term Strategies and Commitment, New Logistics

For immediate release:  February 03, 2005 

Boston, MA—In two journal articles, humanitarian disaster experts Drs. Jennifer Leaning and Michael VanRooyen from Harvard School of Public Health’s Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights, examine the new vulnerabilities to natural disasters and the long term government commitment needed to relieve and protect populations after the initial global outpouring of donations to tsunami victims.

In a Perspective appearing in the Feb. 3, 2005 New England Journal of Medicine, “After the Tsunami – Facing the Public Health Challenges,” the two physicians term the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami a “classic natural disaster” not complicated thus far by war or terrorism and with health effects similar to that of a cyclone or hurricane with flooding. They write: “The short-term public health needs of the surviving population are familiar (albeit massive): water, sanitation, food, shelter, and appropriate medical care administered to persons remaining in place and the thousands who are living in self-settled displaced communities.”

But the health risks to survivors in the wake of the tsunami are ironically manmade: it is the artificial, crowded communities of large refugee camps that serve as an incubator for the spread of communicable diseases. It would be safer, the authors argue, though not as practical for delivering relief, if survivors were more dispersed. Focus now must turn to the need for relief organizations to transition to long-term reconstruction of the health care infrastructure and to preventive warning and evacuation systems for marginalized, remote populations.

In the second article, "Smoke and Mirrors: Deficiencies in Disaster Funding," appearing in the January 29, 2005 British Medical Journal, Dr. Leaning and colleagues from Tufts University and the London School of Economics write that, “Disasters such as the recent tsunami, which derail development, can no longer be viewed as short term blips from which society readily recovers.”

“The headline concern for the tsunami victims, living and dead, will be with us for a few weeks; by contrast, their need for assistance and reform will stretch over decades,” the authors write. “Huge sums have been pledged in aid and a bold commitment made to build an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. But, if past is precedent, only a fraction of recent pledges will materialize and the already overdue warning system will remain a pipe dream for the affected communities.

“The headlines rightly applaud the compassionate outpouring of the public around the world but fail to question the logic of promoting one-off giving from individuals rather than sustained involvement by governments. Disasters are part of normality, and if we are to have a longlasting effect we need to rethink the way aid is delivered and invest in development to help minimize the effects of natural phenomena.”

Jennifer Leaning is director of the Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and is Professor of International Health in the department of Population and International Health at HSPH. She is the director of the Inter-University Initiative on Humanitarian Studies and the director of the Scientific Core of the HSPH Center for Public Health Preparedness. She is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician in the Emergency Department of Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Michael VanRooyen is associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health. He is also the Director of the Institute for International Disaster and Refugee Studies in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

For further information contact:
Robin Herman
(617) 432-4388