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Key messages and facts on emergent and recurrent diseases and other public health challenges


30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 26 to 30 November 2007.

 Key messages:  

The spread of disease and access to health care are two areas of major concern for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which plays a key role in responding to public health emergencies worldwide.

Apart from dealing with health emergencies caused by disaster or conflict, the different Movement partners also work to prevent diseases, such as measles and malaria, and provide care for people living with illnesses, like HIV. In addition, the Movement partners repair and upgrade water and sanitation systems, and promote good hygiene practices, in an effort to improve people's overall health. This is especially important following conflicts and catastrophes, when inadequate water and sanitation heighten the risk of disease.

Health is a key contributor to social and economic progress. Communities, like individuals, need a strong immune system in order to cope with external threats, such as natural disasters or conflict. Healthy communities are more resilient and better prepared to cope during a crisis, which is why the Movement also focuses on prevention and rehabilitation.

Diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, endanger communities worldwide, but especially in developing nations, where people are often trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health. Poverty is one of the biggest obstacles limiting access to health care in many countries. The poor are also particularly hard hit by armed conflict, which often leaves essential health care infrastructure in tatters and restricts access to essential drugs and services. 

The Movement believes that improved cooperation between governments, international organizations, businesses and communities is urgently needed in order to increase access to health care, without discrimination, for vulnerable people, especially those who are marginalized, stigmatized or victims of armed conflict.

Medical workers should also have access to any individual in need, regardless of their legal status, and such services should be protected. A collective effort should be made to explore ways to mobilize and maximize the resource of community-based Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, in order to ensure that health care is provided to all affected and vulnerable populations, including isolated communities.

Often, volunteers risk their own lives to bring help where it's needed – from setting up mobile health clinics in remote mountain villages to transporting the war-wounded to hospitals. Their energy, enthusiasm and dedication represent the very best of what the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement stands for.

 Key facts on emergent and recurrent diseases and other public health challenges:  

The Movement takes a comprehensive approach to health and care, providing a range of services from emergency response and epidemic control, to the treatment of war wounds and disabilities caused by conflict. Here is just a sample of the projects the Movement supports:

 HIV: Around 40 million people are currently living with HIV, according to UNAIDS. More than 4 million people were infected with the virus in 2006, while AIDS claimed just under 3 million lives. Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, are among the most frequently diagnosed medical conditions in prisons worldwide. The Movement supports a large number of programmes for people living with HIV – from volunteer home visits and anti-stigma campaigns to voluntary HIV testing and counselling in detention centres. In 2006, the International Federation launched a $300 million USD appeal to combat HIV and AIDS in Southern Africa, the world’s worst affected region. The funds will be used to convey 50 million prevention messages, provide care for 250,000 people and support 460,000 vulnerable children, particularly orphans. From Armenia to Uganda, the ICRC is engaged in lobbying to make antiretroviral drugs available to prisoners and raising awareness of the risk of infection among detainees and wardens. For more information, please visit:

The International Federation's web site:  The ICRC's web site:  

 TB: Tuberculosis, a preventable and curable airborne disease, infects around 8 million people each year and claims over 1.5 million lives annually. It's estimated that 95 per cent of new cases are in developing countries. For almost a decade, the International Federation has been working closely with National Societies and the WHO to control the growing TB epidemic in Eastern Europe, where TB deaths are on the rise following years of steady decline. TB is also highly prevalent in prisons, where overcrowding, inadequate ventilation, a lack of awareness about prevention and a failure to enforce treatment can breed highly resistant strains. For years, the ICRC has been fighting TB in prisons in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa . In the southern Caucasus, the ICRC and local health authorities managed to reduce the mortality rate among TB patients in prisons from 16 per cent in 1995 to five per cent in 2005.

 Measles: Each year, measles kills nearly 345,000 people, and of those, most are children under the age of five. The Measles Initiative, a joint initiative by the American Red Cross, the CDC, UNICEF, the WHO and the UN Foundation, is a shining example of how partnerships can save lives. Together, they have achieved a remarkable 75 per cent reduction in the number of measles deaths in Africa, and a 60 per cent reduction worldwide since 1999.

For more information, please visit:  

 Malaria: More than a million people die of malaria every year, mostly infants, young children and pregnant women – the majority of whom live in Africa, according to the WHO. Another successful example of partnerships-at-work is the Keep Up anti-malaria campaign in Africa, where several National Societies have teamed up with the International Federation to pioneer a community-based education and follow-up programme to ensure that mosquito bed nets are properly used by people to control the spread of malaria. The ICRC also provides bed nets and essential drugs to war-affected communities, as well as internally displaced people.

For more information, please visit:  Influenza: The threat of avian influenza and a human flu pan demic remain very real. Poor countries, which lack the infrastructure to cope with outbreaks, are especially vulnerable. Since the end of 2003, more than 60 countries have experienced outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of the virus in poultry. At least 288 people have been infected in 12 countries across Asia, Europe, The Middle East and Africa. The International Federation has launched a global avian influenza preparedness, mitigation and response appeal aimed at supporting National Societies in raising awareness and encouraging contingency planning, especially in remote, risk-prone villages. The International Federation and the ICRC also encourage National Societies to work with the authorities in developing preparedness strategies and measures. A joint declaration on humanitarian cooperation in pandemic preparedness and response was signed between the International Federation, the ICRC, the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations on 29 October 2007. For more information, please visit:  

 Barriers to access: Access to health care can be limited by many factors. In some cases, people simply cannot afford to see a doctor, while in others, they are prevented from seeking medical assistance because they live too far away or it may be too dangerous to travel. Some people, such as migrants or detainees, may face discrimination or exclusion when seeking health care. Armed conflict also cuts people off from health care by damaging hospitals and clinics, preventing people from accessing doctors and exposing them to the lingering threat of landmines and other unexploded remnants of war. In many conflict-affected areas, medical services are not respected, and doctors and nurses are threatened or targeted. The ICRC works to ensure the safety of medical staff, and respect for health care facilities and medical transport services during times of armed conflict.

For more information on the International Federation's activities, please visit:  

 Rehabilitation: Injuries inflicted by anti-personnel mines or other explosive weapons can lead to amputation, severe disability and psychological trauma. These casualties require specialist surgery and post-operative care, followed by rehabilitation and psychological support. The ICRC has assisted over 70 physical rehabilitation centres around the world in providing physiotherapy, prostheses, crutches and wheelchairs to disabled people. This helps them regain some measure of mobility and contributes to their economic independence. The ICRC's Special Fund for the Disabled – established at the 24th International Conference in 1981 – continues to enable people with physical disabilities to have access to rehabilitation centres and services.


 First aid: Most National Societies carry out first aid training as one of their major activities. First aid is not simply performing artificial respiration, bandaging a wound or taking an injured person to hospital. It is also about taking someone’s hand and reassuring them. In situations of violence, First Aiders often dodge the danger of gunfire, collapsing buildings, burning cars and tear gas. When catastrophe strikes, they are first on-the-scene, clearing a victim's blocked airway or applying pressure to a bleeding injury. Every day, lives are saved thanks to first aid training provided by National Societies. 

 Blood collection: Millions of people require blood transfusions daily. It is needed for emergencies and for people who have cancer, blood disorders, sickle cell, anaemia and other illnesses. In many countries around the world, National Societies are involved in the collection of voluntary, unpaid blood donations and blood screening. Through these activities, they encourage the public to " give the gift of life " .