4. Harnessing Support for National Health Disaster Programs

Disaster reduction has become a complex undertaking, and it is clear that achieving PAHO/WHO's ultimate goal of reducing the impact of disasters on health requires support and collaboration from a wide variety of professionals inside PAHO/WHO as well as from external agencies. Harnessing the expertise of this network is a key strategy to improving health sector disaster preparedness, mitigation and response.


  • Network of PAHO/WHO Disaster Focal Points: Each PAHO/WHO Representation in Latin America and the Caribbean has a disaster focal point.9 Disaster focal points work with national counterparts to plan and execute disaster reduction activities at the country level. Whenever possible, PAHO/WHO has sought to backstop this staff with national disaster professionals in the Region’s most disaster-prone countries.

    9. The PAHO/WHO Representative in each country designates a staff member as the disaster focal point. The focal points can be sanitary engineers, health services experts, epidemiologists, etc. yet disaster management responsibilities are also formally included in their post descriptions.

The effectiveness of the network of disaster focal points is one example of inter-programmatic collaboration in PAHO. However, one of the best indicators of a commitment to disaster preparedness and mitigation is the earmarking of funds—either by the PAHO/WHO Representations in the countries, the specialized Centers or by the technical divisions themselves. In 2005, 13 countries dedicated a portion of their regular budget to these activities.

  • Commitment of the Organization to create the Regional Disaster Response Team is now a reality. The first training workshop for team members was held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to establish common procedures and acquaint new members with assessment forms and other tools. However, a second meeting which was scheduled for later 2005 had to be postponed because of the hurricane season. Despite this, PAHO’s 46th Meeting of the Directing Council passed a resolution calling on the Organization to “further support Member States by establishing a regionwide mechanism for immediate disaster response.” (See Annex 10 for the complete resolution)
  • Preparedness of PAHO country offices: The PAHO/WHO Representations in Bolivia and Ecuador strengthened their capacity to support the national Ministry of Health and improve internal disaster response by conducting simulation exercises. In the case of Ecuador, the exercise was so successful that the Ministry of Health asked PAHO to carry out a similar exercise at the national level to improve the health sector’s preparedness and response.
  • PAHO’s Headquarters Disaster Task Force was created by the Director in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Two dozen public health and administrative professionals from many programs at headquarters play an active role on the Task Force when meetings are convened during major emergencies. Although PED coordinates the Task Force, other technical divisions such as Health Services, Vaccines and Immunization, Health Promotion and others assume technical leadership as needed.
  • For many years, PAHO Headquarters has relied on an ad hoc Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to serve as a nerve center for managing large-scale disasters. In 2005, the EOC was mobilized several times, but was activated and staffed daily during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide support to other UN agencies that did not have an office in Washington DC. As an interregional response to natural disasters becames more common, it is interesting to see that contacts made while responding to one operation are useful for facilitating working relationships in other global operations.
  • Epidemic Alert and Response Task Force: Planning for an influenza pandemic is a complex process that requires coordinated efforts and an approach that best utilizes an entire organization's expertise. PAHO/WHO has begun this process by creating a Task Force on Epidemic Alert and Response (EAR) to advise the Organization on preparedness, readiness and response activities to address the risk of an influenza pandemic, including when to implement the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR).10 Recognizing the complexity of planning for this emergency and the need for highly-coordinated efforts and an inter-programmatic approach, the EAR is developing technical cooperation strategies for strengthening core capacities for pandemic influenza and other diseases subject to the IHR as well as establishing coordination mechanisms with international organizations and regional integration systems. Although the Area on Communicable Diseases is taking the lead in the initial phases of the pandemic, the Organization is using emergency management terms and methodology to develop pandemic preparedness and response plans, in close collaboration with PED. (Annex 11).

    10. The purpose of the regulations is to ensure maximum security against the international spread of diseases. WHO adopted new regulations in May to manage public health emergencies of international concern.


PAHO’s many years of experience (over 100 years) and extensive network of expert professionals serve as crucial assets in harnessing support for national health disaster programs. PED’s relationships and partnerships with both internal departments, such as the Department of Infectious Diseases, and external agencies, such as UNICEF, serve not only as a mutual support mechanism, but also help advance shared goals. These collaborations not only facilitate a productive working environment, but also help to spread information on disaster preparedness activities, such as the Pandemic Influenza preparedness, as well as to expand the base of available expert resources through such groups as the Disaster Response Team. Consequently, a continued goal is to maintain these relationships for future collaborations.

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