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Preparing for disasters

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TAKING place just a week before the earthquake in Nepal, a conference called ‘Natural disasters and One Health – Are we prepared?’, which was held in Brussels last month, might seem to have been horribly prescient. The reality is, however, that natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and extreme climatic events happen, and as a result of climate change they can be expected to occur more frequently in the future. The conference, organised by the Latvian Presidency of the European Union and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), with the participation of the European Union, provided a timely reminder of the need for the world to be prepared for disasters and to take a holistic, preventative approach to managing them and mitigating the consequences.

Natural hazards clearly exist, whether geophysical, hydrological, climatological, meteorological or biological. However, a hazard need not automatically lead to a disaster. Hazards, the conference heard, can be natural or human-induced, but disasters are often man-made because populations are not ready to respond or are unable to cope. The focus, it concluded, should be on managing the risks rather than simply trying to respond to the disaster.

Among other conclusions from the meeting, which are available on the FVE's website,1 are that, due to growing human and animal populations, as well as climatic changes, interactions between people, animals and the environment are becoming harder to identify and manage. Nevertheless, it was pointed out, the impact of animals and the environment is a critical factor for the safety and wellbeing of people. A key message from the conference was that civil protection mechanisms need to consider human-animal-ecosystem interactions in order to enhance disaster preparedness and ensure a successful response. It also concluded that a One Health approach should be integrated into these mechanisms, and should include close cooperation with veterinary services.

People come first in disaster situations but, as experience of numerous different disasters in different parts of the world has demonstrated, their dependency on animals and their relationship with them is a crucial consideration in any relief programme. As was pointed out at the meeting, food and feed safety can be severely compromised during a natural disaster, and waste and carcase management is one of the main problems that disaster-stricken communities face. Meanwhile, animal keepers want to save their animals – whether food, transport or companion animals – and have been known to take risks, in some cases putting their own lives in danger, in order to do so. The veterinarian's role in disaster management is crucial, and includes safeguarding animal health and welfare, protecting human and animal health, and helping to restore the economic and social conditions that are needed for long-term recovery.

Vets can, and do, play an important role in disaster relief efforts, as is currently being demonstrated in Nepal (see page 479 of this issue). However, their contribution needs to be more fully integrated into disaster management programmes. As the meeting concluded, ‘Natural and man-made disasters require a multidisciplinary engagement to achieve optimal efficiency and effectiveness in planning, mitigation, response and recovery. The One Health model can contribute to efficient preparedness and management by avoiding the duplication of efforts, especially during the time-sensitive rescue phase.’

The meeting also pointed out that planning, communication and collaboration are essential in preparing for disasters, noting that ‘preparedness for the event of a natural hazard must include appropriate risk assessment; sharing of experience from past events; planning for a rapid well-coordinated response at the event's emergence; and quick restoration of the local community and the environment after the crisis period.’ The need to take a preventative approach and to prepare for disasters seems obvious but, as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has pointed out, in countries receiving the most humanitarian aid over the past decade, only US$0.62 of every US$ 100 spent was invested in preparedness. Meanwhile, it reports, in each of the past four years, global losses as a result of natural disasters have amounted to over US\$ 100 billion.2 This is clearly an area where greater concerted efforts are needed.

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