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Conference Calls for Safer Hospitals in Developing World

Wednesday is International Day for Disaster Reduction and a conference in London is tackling an often overlooked issue - how to make hospitals safer.

When emergencies take place attention is often focused on immediate relief: making sure water, food, and medical treatment are available. But what happens when hospitals have been washed away by floods or turned to rubble in an earthquake?

At the conference, health-sector officials from around the world came together to try to find ways to make hospitals safer and stronger so that when disasters happen, health facilities will be more resilient.

The event was attended not only by doctors, nurses, and delegates from international aid groups, but also by people from outside the health sector - planners, architects and engineers who talked about ways of building hospitals in such a way that they would be ready for an emergency.

U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Deputy Director Helena Molin-Valdes told VOA health facilities need to be at the center of disaster relief.

"Health and hospitals are basic areas of well being, lets say, that when a major disaster or a smaller disaster occurs, if you do not have health facilities that function and can respond to the needs you create yet another level of disaster," she said.

A look at some of the major natural disasters in recent years makes clear that health facilities are vulnerable. According to the Ministry of Health, the Asian Tsunami in 2004 swept away or damaged almost two-thirds of health clinics in one Indonesian province. A cyclone in Burma in 2008 destroyed one in five hospitals.

The World Health Organization says there are at least 90,000 health facilities in the world's 49 least developed countries. The majority, it says, are vulnerable to disaster.

Molin-Valdes says the problem in many developing countries is that even basic health facilities are not in place.

"We have to improve health care in general for everyday need[s] and everyday purposes and if it does not work on an everyday basis of course in a crisis or in a disaster it is not going to suddenly work better," she said.

She says health facilities are a fundamental part of community life and it is important they are designed to be useful in case of emergency.

"It is the health facility which is becoming in many occasions the center of community confidence, let us say, and community gathering as well," said Molin-Valdes. "When it comes to now vaccinations and immunization programs et cetera. In many many communities it is the health workers that goes house by house and actually creates a network of well-being among the population."

In the past decade an average of almost 400 events each year have met the U.N. criteria for a natural disaster. In 2008 natural disasters took more than 235,000 lives and cost the world an estimated $200 billion.