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Resilient and Stable: Building Strong Health Systems to Protect Women, Adolescents, and Children

Organized by
MSH, Global Health Council, Johnson & Johnson, and Syrian American Medical Society

September 18
1:00 PM – 1:30 PM (Lunch) & 1:30 PM – 3:30 PM (Program)
Harvard Club, 35 W 44th Street
New York, New York


In countries facing humanitarian crises, whether torn by war or civil unrest, or affected by natural disasters or epidemics, shocks and stresses often undercut the health care system. These systems struggle to provide basic health care needs in the face of instability, often enduring a decimated workforce, damaged facilities and infrastructure, and broken supply chains. Those most impacted – women, adolescents, and children – are also the most vulnerable.

As nations emerge from periods of crisis, systems adapt in an attempt to recover from shocks and opportunities arise to leverage existing tools and approaches that communities are already using.

This session will dive into approaches for strengthening and rebuilding health systems in especially challenging contexts, through integrated programs that increase the adaptive capacity of health systems and protect the health of those most vulnerable while unlocking their individual and collective capacity to rebound from crises stronger than before.

When Disaster Strikes, Who Responds?

In many parts of the developed world there are relief teams, ambulances, and specially trained workers and emergency rooms in hospitals that can absorb the wave of victims when a crisis hits. Supporting these services is an infrastructure consisting of healthcare facilities, support and counseling services, and organizations that are ready to generate funding to support the emergency response.  Even though this system has gaps and sometimes fails, it helps developed nations cope with disasters and emergencies and ultimately emerge from them.

But this system is often missing or incomplete in much of the world. In most of the developing world, hospitals are strapped for resources.  Medicines are in short supply, doctors are few and far between, and the closest healthcare facility can be hours away.  With an incomplete support structure, health systems in these places fail regularly. 

Imagine how these systemic deficiencies are exacerbated when a large scale natural disaster – or worse, a war – strikes.  In these cases, already fragile health systems are overwhelmed with the increase in demand for emergency services. Without a robust infrastructure, these places can’t hope to cope with all of these new challenges.

Consider the current crisis in Syria – 4.25 million Syrians are believed to have been forcibly  displaced within the country and over 100,000 deaths are believed to have been caused due to the conflict.  With the recent escalations, the health crisis is becoming even more extreme. 

Afghan midwives being trained, photo provided by IMC

Afghan midwives being trained, photo provided by IMC

But how should the health, development and humanitarian communities respond? GHC members can provide some insight:

  1. Disaster Response: Organizations like IMC, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee support emergency response teams that provide emergency services to areas in need.  These teams come to disaster areas and bring emergency health care, nutrition, water and sanitation, and more critical health services that would otherwise be unavailable to people in need.
  2. Health Infrastructure: The global health community must make supporting health infrastructure a priority.  Organizations like Intrahealth and the Task Force for Global Health work to promote strong health infrastructures by increasing the number of health workers and strengthening health resources that provide the necessary backbone to disaster response.  Bringing in supplies and volunteers in times of special need is important, but so is building up resources already in existence. 

We may not be able to avoid crises when they happen, but with these two measures, the health community can certainly come prepared.

This post was written by Olivia Noble at the Global Health Council