Primary health care
The ICRC and its Red Cross and Red Crescent partners intervene in conflict situations to maintain essential health care services for the affected population, as far as possible by supporting local structures and enabling them to continue functioning. Where needed, the ICRC will send its own specialists and will focus support on areas where official agencies are unable to work. As a neutral and independent organisation the ICRC seeks to ensure that health care is available to all.
The normal functioning of local health systems is often disrupted by conflict. In the worst cases, parts or all of the system may cease to exist. The risk of epidemics increases and support for civilian casualties and those suffering psychological trauma is limited or non-existent.
The ICRC’s response reflects the level of emergency, the potential for escalation, and the involvement of other agencies. It has incorporated the primary health care strategy developed by the World Health Organization into its medical support activities.
In cases of serious emergency when vital needs are not covered by existing health services, the ICRC takes emergency measures to meet immediate survival needs, such as food and water, and limit mortality through basic medical treatment, communicable-disease control and immunization campaigns.
The scope of ICRC activities can differ according to the level of disruption and the specific needs of the population. But the goal is constant: to seek continuity in essential health services, preventive and curative. This is achieved through direct support of local infrastructure – health posts, health centres and district hospitals – in ways that are consistent with national health policy.
ICRC assistance includes construction or rehabilitation of facilities to meet essential needs, especially water and sanitation. It supplies medical equipment and drugs, and provides organizational support for capacity building, skills training and supervision.
The ICRC’s primary health-care initiatives to combat infant mortality include extended immunization programmes against measles, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, poliomyelitis and whooping cough. In 2007, the ICRC administered 497,277 doses of vaccine to children under five years old.
The ICRC is involved in campaigns to counter specific diseases, such as polio. With National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the other polio eradication partners, it helps ensure access to children living in areas where governments and UN organizations are unable to work.
The wounds of war are not only physical: proximity to combat, forced evacuation, separation from relatives, detention, rape and other violence leave deep psychological scars and vulnerability which the ICRC seeks to address through various activities. These include visits to detainees, help in restoring family links, transmitting Red Cross messages, as well as trying to ensure food supplies and reasonable living conditions. Rape victims and the families of people missing are a particular source of concern for the ICRC.
In many conflict areas the health system is weak at the best of times and the ICRC, often with the National Society, pays special attention to the needs of expectant and nursing mothers. It encourages good practices for safe delivery, often with traditional birth attendants and offers counselling on HIV/AIDS.