Health in the age of disasters

The health implications of natural hazards are hot on the agenda, as New South Wales residents continue to wake to hazardous bushfire smoke in the sky above. A new handbook will begin providing good practice advice for health and the emergency sector.

Australia just experienced its driest spring on record, with catastrophic bushfire conditions causing hazardous air quality ratings for many parts of the country.

In the week leading up to 6 December NSW Health said there had been around 1,140 visits to emergency departments, about 25 per cent more than the usual weekly average.

As emergency services respond to the immediate risks, the health impacts of natural hazards are also important to consider.

Floodwater can spread infectious diseases; heatwaves can aggravate existing medical conditions and exposure to disasters can lead to stress and trauma.

AIDR has worked with the health and emergency sectors to develop the Health and Disaster Management Handbook, which provides a coordinated approach to health in the age of disasters.

The handbook provides a guide to the management and planning of natural, biological and chemical hazards, and other events like the release of carcinogenic material into the environment, hostile acts and pandemics.

AIDR Executive Director Amanda Leck said, ‘we are working with the health and emergency sectors to provide guidance, reduce the impacts of emergencies and manage disruption before, during and after disasters to create more resilient communities.’

The handbook draws on extensive knowledge in areas including law, ethics, preparedness, response and recovery to provide a holistic and national approach to health in disaster management. It covers the effects of bushfire smoke, flood-related disease, trauma from high threat incidents and how to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.

A broad range of stakeholders participated in the production of the handbook, including: Federal Department of Health; Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria; Department of Health Queensland; Torrens Resilience Institute Australia; Queensland University of Technology; Ambulance Victoria; Western Australia Health; and the Department of Health, Northern Territory.

David Waters is the Chief Executive Officer at the Council of Ambulance Authorities, who says the handbook deals with the complexities of the health system.

'The Health and Disaster Management Handbook helps navigate the complexity in planning the health response to disasters and demonstrates the need to engage widely to provide the best care to our patients,' Mr Waters says.

The guide helps individuals and organisations working in the health system to understand their role in supporting communities and vulnerable people before, during and after a disaster.

It may also be of value to educators, planning authorities, businesses and the private sector to prepare and build resilience in the health space.

The Australian Disaster Resilience Handbook Collection provides trusted and freely available information and knowledge about key principles related to disaster resilience in Australia.

Each handbook aligns national strategies with policy and practice, while highlighting the benefits of adopting good practice and collective approaches.

The Health and Disaster Management Handbook is available online for download or hard copy purchases.