The World Health Organization says thousands of lives are lost every year because hospitals are not built to withstand damage and destruction from natural disasters, conflicts and other emergencies.  The World Health Organization is promoting the theme of safe hospitals as it observes this year's World Health Day.  

The powerful earthquake, which has devastated the Italian city of L'Aquila is just the latest disaster to hit the headlines.  Natural disasters take a heavy toll in lives and property.  

Last year, the World Health Organization reports nearly 236,000 people were killed and 211 million people affected by natural disaster at a cost of $181 billion.  The biggest disaster was Cyclone Nargis in Burma, which left more than 138,000 people dead or missing.  

This was followed by the Sichuan earthquake in southwestern China.  WHO Director of Health Action in Crises Samir Ben Yahmed says nearly 88,000 people were killed and over 11,000 hospitals destroyed.

He says life-saving services are halted when hospitals are damaged or destroyed.  He says hospitals are the last refuge for people caught in disasters.

"It would be terrible for these people," Yahmed said.  "They go to the last resort left for them and they find ... either it is collapsing or collapsed or it is not functional.  They cannot provide them with the services they need.  That is the nightmare of the nightmare.  We want to make sure that the victims, the affected populations in the time of emergency, when they go to seek rescue from a health facility, they will find that it is still there and it is functional."   

Hospitals that are damaged or put out of action have far-reaching consequences.  The World Health Organization notes survivors of a disaster are unable to receive care and people who need routine health services are left without them.  

For example, it says women who need help in childbirth, children who need routine vaccines, and people who depend on dialysis or surgery to stay alive have nowhere to go to get help.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Reduction Margareta Wahlstrom says much of this trauma can be prevented by building safer hospitals.  She says it costs surprisingly little to construct a new hospital that can withstand the shocks of earthquakes, floods or high winds.

"If you build a safer hospital, maybe your cost will increase four percent of the total investment," Wahlstrom said.  "You build a hospital for 50 years at least.  You build hospitals for 75 years.  At least you build them for many decades.  It is a worthwhile investment."  

Walhstrom notes rebuilding a hospital that has been destroyed virtually doubles the initial cost of the facility.

The World Health Organization warns the number of emergencies and disasters is rising due to continuing urbanization and climate change.  It says a growing number of areas will become disaster-prone.  Therefore, it is smart to think and plan ahead.

When hospitals remain standing and functioning, the World Health Organization says they become beacons of security in the midst of disaster and despair.