Prolonged conflict in such countries as South Sudan and Syria has decimated health care systems and risks the lives of humanitarians bringing their citizens assistance.

Vulnerability to natural disaster, the threat of conflict, and outbreaks of infectious diseases are major impediments to achieving good health for the world’s poorest populations. Providing health care for populations affected by crises is essential in any humanitarian response.

The burden of disease and the mortality levels experienced in countries affected by humanitarian crises are tragically high – half the children who die before age 5 and more than one-third of mothers who die worldwide live in fragile states.

Addressing specific health needs – such as treatment for survivors of gender-based violence, maternal and newborn care, promoting optimal nutrition, access to clean water and sanitation, and mental health and psychosocial support – is critical during a response.

Assistance to these populations must be based upon need, guided by humanitarian principles, and be impartial and accessible to all. It is critical to focus on the health needs of the most vulnerable populations – such as women, children, older adults, and persons with disabilities.

Assessment in Nepal Credit: Relief International


Maintain strong support for the International Disaster Assistance and Migration and Refugee Affairs accounts, and continue robust funding levels for humanitarian emergencies through S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA); the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM); and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). U.S.-funded humanitarian programs have proven to be essential in saving lives, preventing the further degradation of fragile states, and contributing to global safety and security.

The U.S. government should remain a global leader in humanitarian health response by enhancing coordination with key donors, engaging and supporting influential donors from other countries, and contributing substantively in global humanitarian policy discussions.

The U.S. government should increase its investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and preparedness strategies and programming. Greater attention to and increased support for DRR and emergency preparedness can help mitigate the impact of disasters and prevent loss of life and damage to communities.

The U.S. government should advocate for the protection of humanitarian workers providing lifesaving care by ensuring that hospitals and health centers are not targeted in conflict affected areas.

Medical Supplies in South Sudan Credit: Relief International
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Credit: Relief International


As part of a coordinated humanitarian response during and after a natural disaster or in times of conflict, investing in health care and services is critical to saving millions of lives. U.S. funding provides essential health care, such as emergency medical interventions, nutritional support, and access to clean water and sanitation, and prevents the outbreak of diseases. Strategic, timely, and effective action by the U.S. humanitarian and health funding agencies – including USAID/OFDA, PRM, and CDC – has allowed lifesaving interventions to reach millions of people throughout the world. In 2015 alone, the U.S. government provided $1.1 billion in direct support for emergency health programs.[1]

The U.S. is also committed to responding to outbreaks of infectious disease, most recently during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and Zika globally. Currently, only one-third of countries are prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to these global risks. The U.S. has committed to improving the health systems of developing countries to prevent these future disasters from occurring abroad and within the U.S.

Recent disasters, such as the Nepal earthquake, saw not only a large outpouring of public and private U.S. financial support, but also a large number of volunteers serving in emergency-affected areas. Americans support U.S. investments in humanitarian health because such investments reflect American values of assisting those in need. Immediately after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2014, killing more than 6,000 people, U.S. foreign medical teams arrived to care for the living. After the Nepal earthquake, emergency medical professionals deployed to run lifesaving search and rescue operations. In West Africa, American doctors and nurses deployed to fill critical gaps in health care during the Ebola outbreak. The U.S. military responded by establishing emergency treatment centers and transporting essential supplies.

While many emergencies cannot be predicted or prevented, the resulting loss of life can be reduced through appropriate mitigation and preparedness efforts. The U.S. should remain steadfast in its leadership role of building resilient health systems in low-income countries, responding quickly and efficiently when emergencies occur, and coordinating and supporting efforts in post-emergency recovery. Since many issues arising from emergencies require longer-term solutions, the U.S. has supported countries after initial disasters to help address the most critical health needs and strengthen the recovery phase.


  1. Office of the U.S. Foreign Disasters Assistance 2015 Annual Report


Mike O’Brien, Relief International,


[1] “Donor Profile: United States in 2015,” UNOCHA Financial tracking Service.

©2017 Global Health Council