Caring for vulnerable populations in emergencies – World Population Day 2015

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Humanitarian emergencies bring disaster, displacement and disorder into people’s lives, throwing formerly stable communities and support networks into chaos, and violently disrupting the flow of everyday life. According to the UN, currently over 60 million people have been displaced by humanitarian emergencies.

These situations are typically characterized by: extensive violence and loss of life; displacements of populations; widespread damage to societies and economies; the need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance; the hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints; and significant security risks for humanitarian relief workers in some areas (PALCHE, 2015).

The turmoil brought about by emergency situations is most keenly felt by already vulnerable populations. These include, women, children and young people, marginalised or stigmatised groups, and – of course – those experiencing illness and in those need of palliative care.

These already vulnerable groups become exposed to increased violence, while protective structures – whether within the family or community or based in the law –may collapse.

Also, people dependant on others for care, or on certain supply channels for essential medication, find these structures interrupted or destroyed in complex humanitarian emergency (CHE) situations. At the same time, their existing conditions may be exacerbated by exposure to the elements or lack of food and water.

The UN has mentioned healthcare as one of the priority areas to be addressed in CHEs. However, palliative care has not been included in this, despite the desperate need for these services and the particular and relevant skill set brought by those trained in this field.

Palliative care can offer services such as expert pain relief, counselling for complex grief and bereavement and reconstruction of social support structures, among others, and can support existing humanitarian relief efforts.

Local hospices often have close links and are known and trusted at community level, and therefore are ideally placed to offer immediate skilled assistance. 

The recently formed Palliative Care in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies (PALCHE) network is made up of people working in palliative care from many different countries and professional backgrounds. Each member, through their own work, has observed a gap in the response to CHEs and recognised the potential for palliative care to help fill this gap.

The PALCHE network, housed within the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), aims to address the lack of palliative care in CHEs by working with humanitarian aid agencies and local hospice services to improve the quality of life of those needing these services.

Joan Marston, coordinator of the PALCHE network, said: “While we respect that there are many pressing and immediate needs in CHEs, we need to work with existing relief efforts to be able to identify and care for those with life-limiting and chronic illnesses. Their need for palliative care requires our compassionate response to provide it.” 

Palliative care is an essential part of the response to CHEs. Follow the activities of PALCHE on ehospice and email Joan Marston on to find out how you can get involved.

Find out more about World Population Day online.

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