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The Red Cross and Health Policy

February 25, 2020
paramedic helping an injured person on the street

About the Red Cross

The American Red Cross is an organization we all know will show up whenever and wherever disasters occur. This connection is understandable: Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881, in order to provide relief and assistance to Americans affected by the devastation of World War I.1 Since then, our national affiliate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has responded to floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, wars and other emergencies. But what is its role and impact on public health in times of disaster and peace?

The protection of public health is primarily a function of the government. Volunteer agencies such as the Red Cross tend to target their efforts toward supplementing and supporting the work of these official government agencies. The American Red Cross makes vital contributions to our country’s public health with its educational and service efforts.2 In terms of disaster relief, the Red Cross medical service does not replace the services of local physicians but augments them by assisting with the organization, distribution and direction of medical and relief work. The Red Cross may even provide facilities and supplies that local communities may lack. In addition to disaster relief, the Red Cross is known for activities in foreign services, public health nursing, first aid, water safety, accident prevention, home nursing and nutrition.2 Each of these initiatives has improved upon and expanded on what the official government agencies have implemented.

Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Health Policy

The IFRC has put in place a health policy for 2020 that reaffirms the federation’s commitment to carrying out a broad scope of health activities to strengthen communities’ resilience. The base of the policy draws from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of health: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”3 To strengthen the formal health system within countries, the Red Cross focuses on health promotion, primary healthcare, disease control and prevention, psychosocial support, safe water provision, and providing adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities. This health policy recognizes the growing need to bolster the ability of communities to promote health, prevent disease outbreaks, respond to public health emergencies and more.3

The IFRC and National Societies across the globe strive to use their expertise and strength in numbers to accomplish their goals. They aim to protect and promote the health of vulnerable populations, engage key figures at national and international levels to advocate for fundamental rights to healthcare, safe water and sanitation for all vulnerable groups. Because the Red Cross augments existing government health programs, National Societies must advocate for the establishment, maintenance and continuous improvement of national health systems. The goal is to have a system which is stable, sustainable and capable of meeting the needs of the entire population, especially the most vulnerable.

Impact of Disasters on Health

The importance of organizations like the Red Cross becomes clear when we examine the severe and varied effects that disasters can have on public health and health systems. Some of these effects include but are not limited to:4

  • Possible breakdown of local health systems: This is dependent on the extent of the disaster, the local capacities to respond and the level of community preparedness
  • Inability to access health facilities: This may occur because transportation, roads or the facilities themselves are damaged or destroyed
  • Shortage of capable health professionals: This can happen when health professionals are victims of the disaster themselves and the remaining staff may be unable to handle the increased volume of health needs
  • Insufficient resources: A sudden increase in demand can result in a lack of medicine and supplies
  • Inability to access safe water: A lack of drinking water and access to sanitation facilities can occur when potable water sources are contaminated and facilities are destroyed
  • Insufficient food: An absence of quality and quantity of food is another potential impact due to the destruction of food stocks and livelihoodsThe aforementioned scenarios can lead to an increase in different kinds of diseases, injuries and traumas, a higher probability of epidemic and communicable disease outbreaks, a greater need for mental health support and increased need for medication and medical supplies.

How the Red Cross Helps

So, how does the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement help in improving public health? The Red Cross provides support for the local health systems’ capacity to prepare for and respond to disasters by operating in emergency relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation, and long-term development cooperation. The National Societies support and implement measures to mitigate the impact of disasters, enhance household and community coping methods, restore or improve upon pre-disaster living conditions, and develop organizational and community readiness and response abilities.4 The Red Cross has a large pool of experienced health professionals, geographically broad experience, expertise gained through implementing long-term development projects in the health sector, and the ability to share and use multilateral operational tools, and joint training programs.4

Outside of disaster relief, the National Societies have a responsibility to identify their supportive roles within their country’s health programs and ensure that programs consider and account for health promotion, disease prevention, treatment and control protocols officially promoted by WHO. To prepare for disasters, National Societies should build management capabilities for planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, leadership and coordination related to providing health services.3 The IFRC and National Societies work together to help countries become self-sustaining in terms of developmental programming, capacity building and training. The ultimate goal is for each National Society to implement a specific program with activities that encourage long-term sustainability, and to ensure long-term funding aimed toward capacity building and behavior change for better help.3 After all, health is not the absence of disease or suffering, but a state of complete and total well-being for all of society, in times of disaster and peace.

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  1. Retrieved on February 10, 2020, from britannica.com/topic/American-Red-Cross
  2. Retrieved on February 10, 2020, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1527031/
  3. Retrieved on February 10, 2020, from ifrc.org/document/health-policy
  4. Retrieved on February 10, 2020, from reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Forward.pdf