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29-10-2010 Overview

The goal of ICRC’s Health Unit activities is to give people affected by conflict access to basic preventive and curative health care that meets universally recognized standards. To this end, it assists – or may temporarily replace – local health services.

The ICRC Health Unit assists victims of conflict and violence by improving access to essential and effective health care. Its objective is to contribute to a reduction in mortality, morbidity, suffering and disabilities that result from inadequate care.

Besides military and civilian casualties, conflict frequently results in infrastructure damage, disruption of supply lines and refugees seeking security. If health services – or parts of them – remain operational, access can be difficult, dangerous or prohibited for parts of the community and may in any case be overwhelmed by loss of staff and a sudden increase in emergency cases. As a result, many normal health-care needs go unattended – children and pregnant women are not vaccinated, there is no antenatal care, no capacity for treating chronic illness or elective surgical cases, and so on.

Emergency health needs range from medicines and medical equipment, assistance from expatriate medical and surgical teams and the training of additional health workers, to the reconstruction of medical facilities and management or administrative support. When conflicts subside, the long-term rehabilitation and reform of health systems is often pressing.

In emerging or acute crises, when access to medical facilities and provision of care are at risk, the ICRC helps ensure continuation of basic health services, First Aid, emergency transport and emergency hospital care. The basic services include outpatient treatment, mother and child care, vaccination campaigns and dealing with the consequences of sexual violence. 

Hospital support is primarily directed at management of surgical, pediatric, obstetric and internal medical emergencies. War wounds that may lead to amputation or other serious disabilities are dealt with within the framework of physical rehabilitation programmes.  

In chronic crises and post-crisis situations, the ICRC may provide more diversified support to ensure continuity of primary health care including broader immunization programmes, health and hygiene promotion. It may also take steps to strengthen hospital management.

ICRC medical staff also visit prisons to assess the inmates health and investigate the consequences of physical or psychological ill-treatment.



All international treaties that prohibit or limit the use of weapons are ultimately based on concern for human health.

To claim that weapons are bad for people's health is to state the obvious, yet health professionals have been slow to recognize that weapons are, in effect, a health issue and a global one at that.

Beyond treating casualties, health professionals can help by applying the basic principles of preventive medicine – for example, by gathering and publishing data to create awareness and understanding of the devastating impact of weapons on individuals and populations.

Reliable data communicated in a compelling manner can make an important contribution to influencing government policies and international law, thereby limiting future human damage.


Colombia. An ICRC doctor takes care of a child.  

Colombia, Nariño, Municipio Roberto Payán, Conquista. An ICRC doctor takes care of a child girl.
© ICRC / Christoph VON TOGGENBURG / V-P-CO-E-00890

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