Advice for Humanitarian Relief Workers
Those wishing to lend assistance as relief workers should approach aid agencies and appropriate charities for information and guidance on ways to help. Individual well-meaning travellers may do more harm than good if they travel to a disaster area independantly without adequate preparation, training and support.
Following natural disasters there may be restrictions on travel to the country involved or parts of the country and the Foreign and Commowealth Office website should be consulted for the latest information.
It is strongly recommended that relief workers obtain comprehensive travel and medical insurance (including repatriation) before travel.
The nature of relief work places the individual at greater risk than other travellers. Relief workers may face greater hazards and health risks because of flooding, unstable buildings, debris, lack of electricity, water, sanitation, health facilities and law enforcement.
Relief workers should ideally be in good physical and mental health. A health check from their GP or Occupational Health adviser to ensure that they are fit for the demands of the deployment is advisable. It may also be of benefit to have a dental check up before leaving if likely to be overseas for a prolonged period of time.
Volunteers who are pregnant or have chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart problems may be more suitable to help in other ways rather than going to the disaster area.
Relief workers going out to affected areas should be relatively self-sufficient and equipped with the following:
- Group or individual first aid kit.
- Water purification tablets and/or filter.
- Tent, sleeping bag and mosquito net.
- Personal equipment such as a torch, batteries, candles, matches etc.
- Protective clothing as appropriate (eg. goggles, gloves).
- Sewing kit, laundry detergent, toilet tissue,
- Non-perishable, high-calorie food bars and rehydration salts.
- Spare spectacles if worn.
Travel Health Advice
Relief workers are often deployed at short notice, however, those undertaking this work should consult with a travel health advisor as soon as practicable for advice on the following: vaccines, malaria recommendations, general health advice including treatment and/or prophylaxis of common problems such as travellers' diarrhoea and information on security issues. In addition the psychological impact of stress, and the ethical and moral challenges the relief worker may encounter as part of the crisis circumstances cannot be underestimated and should be discussed.
Please see the individual country recommendations on fitfortravel for the most up to date advice.
In general recommendations for vaccination are as follows:
- Have vaccines in plenty of time to allow adequate protection.
- Ensure the following are up to date:
- poliomyelitis/diphtheria and tetanus
- measles/mumps and rubella
- hepatitis A and B
- Consider the following vaccines:
- yellow fever if travelling through areas with risk of transmission
- cholera - although the vaccine may be considered, food and water and hygiene precautions are more important
- meningococcal ACWY
- Japanese encephalitis.
For the most up to date malaria advice, see the individual fitfortravel country pages.
- In areas where doxycycline is an appropriate antimalarial, it may be the drug of choice (unless contraindicated) as it may provide some protection against leptospirosis which is a risk in areas of flooding and natural disasters.
- In addition advice can be found by accessing the malaria menu.
- Even when taking antimalarial tablets, mosquito bite prevention is recommended.
- It may be appropriate to take a supply of stand-by emergency treatment for P.falciparum if reliable treatment is likely to be difficult to obtain.
Natural disasters can result in flooding and pooling of stagnant water which increases mosquito breeding sites and the risk of mosquito-borne infections such as malaria, Japanese encephalitis, dengue fever and chikungunya virus infection.
Food and Water-borne Infections
Access to safe water and food and sanitary and hygiene conditions will be determinants of outbreaks of diseases in disaster areas including cholera, typhoid fever, and hepatitis A.
Relief workers should be vaccinated where possible and ensure safe drinking water and food safety to help reduce the risk of infections that are not vaccine-preventable.
Relief workers may be exposed to many other health hazards during their deployment to a disaster area and these include:
- Accidents following damage to roads and transport systems.
- Injury from falling debris.
- Electric shock from faulty/downed power lines.
- Exposure to heat/sun or extreme cold.
- Air pollution.
- Release of toxic material.
- Injury from landmines in conflict areas.
- Personal attack from looters/robbers.
- Attacks from wild animals displaced by the disaster, snakes and stray dogs.
Relief Workers Returning Home
If a relief worker has sustained any injury or been unwell whilst working in a disaster area or is unwell after returning home, they should consult with their GP or Occupational Health adviser and explain that they have been working oversees in a relief situation. Depression is not uncommon in returning relief workers and rest and recuperation is very important. If feelings of depression persist, further counselling may be required.
Information on current disaster situations and relief response is available from ReliefWeb at: http://reliefweb.int/
The World Health Organisation has some very useful advice on natural disaster profiles at http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/ems/natprofiles/en/
back to top