COPING WITH NATURAL DISASTERS: THE ROLE OF LOCAL HEALTH PERSONNEL AND THE COMMUNITY
( By A Working Guide (WHO - OMS, 1989) )

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Chapter 4.Vulnerable groups

Among the various members of the community it is possible to single out groups which, having been exposed to specific risks before the disaster, may find themselves facing increased difficulties. The risk is determined by the potentially harmful effect on these groups that the environment may exert after the disaster. Two aspects of the risk should be considered:


· the biological aspect, i.e. the specific relative weakness of certain individuals in relation to the difficulties that may arise after the disaster,

· the social aspect, i.e. the specific cultural and socio-political factors that may place certain groups in difficulty.


The biological risks threaten expectant and nursing mothers, children during the first few years of life and those suffering from chronic diseases. For all these groups the following factors represent supplementary risks:


· exposure to climatic changes (cold, humidity, sudden changes in weather, winds),

· the difficulty of keeping to the diet prescribed (shortage of certain foods, difficulty of preparing meals),

· the fact that everyday life causes stress and a greater expenditure of energy (travel, transport of objects, repair work, etc.),

· the increased frequency of minor accidents (cuts, injuries, burns) that may disturb a precarious balance,

· the lack of objects that make life easier (spectacles, hearing-aid batteries, etc.),

· possible difficulties, delays or irregularities in the supply of particular medicaments (hypotensive agents, insulin, etc.).



Figure

The social aspect of the risks varies greatly from society to society. In certain cases superstitions, religious beliefs and rumours tend to try to point the finger at the “guilty” in the disaster. There may be ostracism of, or aggressiveness towards, particular social groups or individuals. In other cases, once the initial phase of solidarity and mutual assistance is over, the disaster may reinforce the ostracizing or marginalizing tendencies already present in social life. Certain social groups or individuals are exposed to these risks: immigrants, the mentally ill, the handicapped and socially weaker or “different” groups in general. All the social risks are accentuated and accelerated by the occurrence of corruption, crime and degradation of political life.

The local health personnel should organize specific programmes for the vulnerable groups. Every programme should encourage meetings between people with the same problems, mutual assistance and community solidarity. The periodic reports submitted by the local health workers should take into consideration the special supplies needed for the vulnerable groups.

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