The Public Health Implications of Natural Disasters

The fundamental problem with disasters, which also makes them so likely to cause public health emergencies, is that these events displace a significant number of people and cause conditions that often do not meet basic subsistence standards. In a natural disaster, basic health and medical infrastructure is usually broken or eliminated, and fundamental resources such as food, shelter and clean water, will likely be missing for at least a week to 14 days after an initial event. The combination of the above becomes a catalyst for fast generation and transmission of disease and infection.

The Public Health Implications of Natural Disasters
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Can a public health disaster following a natural disaster be avoided? To some extent it can be mitigated. However, effective response often requires significant social retraining of both the public, as well as regional response agencies. These steps include:

  • Extensive public preparation marketing – FEMA runs national programs on self-sufficiency during an emergency, advising people to have a week’s worth of fresh water and food in their homes, as well as a plan for coordination during an emergency event. However, regional resources have generally not engaged with the same message.
    • Retraining of state and local agencies – Agency coordination is critical for an organized response to a regional disaster; yet in practice, many localities are still disconnected from each other, and from the state and federal levels. This often causes a significant delay that leads to more suffering, up to a week after the initial disaster. Training is critical, both to identify weaknesses to address, as well as for teaching agencies how to work with each other seamlessly. Failures during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans represented the classic case of an absence of agency coordination between local and federal response teams.
      • Developing contingency planning – Having localities and different levels of government produce and maintain contingency planning for when the first response approach doesn’t work provides a significant advantage when a real disaster hits. One of the more common scenarios involves trusted transportation lines being broken. Without a contingency plan addressing this risk, many agencies literally stop in their tracks, not knowing how else to proceed. This occurred in 2010, in Haiti, when the main road from the international airport was destroyed after a major earthquake hit.
        • Training needs to include the new and unforeseen – The current virus could become a lot worse in a region suddenly inundated with water and rain, and then heat. Planning needs to anticipate that the unexpected will occur and to prepare multiple solutions in advance.

    Natural disasters are not a new public health risk, but the scale and need have grown in years, due to larger population sizes involved. As a result, public health managers need both substantive background and practical skill-training in disaster management response.

    To learn more about large-scale public health issues, see the resources offered by the Master of Public Health online through the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California.