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Non-Communicable Diseases In Humanitarian Emergencies

  • February 01, 2018
  • Emergency Programs, Chronic Diseases, Medical Outreach Exchange

Valerie Colgate

Valerie is an M.S. Global Health Candidate with 16 years, multidisciplinary, international, health experience. Interests include aiding vulnerable, underserved and displaced populations in emergency, fragile and conflict-affected settings. She is working as a consultant and Moderator for the Americares Medical Outreach Web Forum launching in May 2018.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is an “unprecedented scale of humanitarian emergencies”.1 In 2018, the United Nations estimates that more than 135 million people around the world will be experiencing a humanitarian emergency, and in need of assistance.2 Making matters worse, many of these emergencies are protracted.2 In turn, these crises are placing a tremendous strain on funding.2 When systems are overwhelmed and funding is becoming depleted, one can understand that solely focusing on basic, life-sustaining needs is paramount. When it comes to communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), do we tend to prioritize one over the other in humanitarian emergencies?  

We know that communicable and non-communicable diseases need medical attention. Yet, most often we hear about preventing the spread of and treating communicable diseases in emergency contexts. The WHO has about a half dozen guidelines for “communicable diseases and crises”, in addition to fact sheets, technical notes and numerous other resources to aid humanitarian health action.3 We know the importance of preventing the spread of and treating acute communicable diseases in emergency contexts, however, one may argue that equally important is caring for those with chronic, non-communicable diseases. Of note, in humanitarian emergencies, a lapse in care for individuals with NCDs can worsen their condition and result in disability or premature death.4,5 Yet, there has been little attention given to the treatment of NCDs in humanitarian emergencies. The WHO has general guidelines on NCD risk factors, however, no specific guidelines for crises settings were found.6

One way the WHO is addressing NCDs in emergencies is by creating NCD kits. These kits fill the gap of inadequate items to treat NCD conditions in the current, emergency health kits and interagency, emergency health kits.5 Of interest, these kits can treat 10,000 people for 3 months.5   Their contents include training materials for health workers, as well as “oral medicines, basic diagnostic equipment, renewables and additional products needing cold chain, such as insulin, accompanied with treatment guidelines”.4,5 As of November 2017, “the first shipment of 6 kits, enough for 60,000 medical treatments, has been delivered cross-border from Turkey to Northern Syria”.5 Do you think the kits are filling a gap or creating a bigger one, as it relates to the continuum of care or lack thereof?  

In conducting a brief Google search, a couple entities were found addressing the prevention of NCDs in humanitarian emergencies. “The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) program on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Humanitarian Settings seeks to address the growing burden of chronic disease in fragile states in order to improve humanitarian action and join international efforts to prevent, control and ultimately reduce the burden of NCDs, in particular in the world’s most vulnerable populations.”7 Another program is a collaborative effort between Medical Teams International (MTI), various NGOs and the UNHCR with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.8 MTI launched a community-based primary health care and health promotion program targeting NCDs and other priority conditions.8 Of note, this program has been successful and sustainable, as health care and promotion is provided through trained, refugee, outreach volunteers.8 Are you involved with and/or aware of organizations addressing the prevention and/or treatment of NCDs in humanitarian emergencies? If so, we’d love to learn more about your program and product needs.

Traditionally, the prevention and/or treatment of NCDs in humanitarian emergencies has not been a medical priority. The importance of preventing the spread of and treating acute communicable diseases in emergency contexts is paramount, however, one may argue that equally important is caring for those with chronic, non-communicable diseases. As such, the WHO has brought attention to this matter by creating NCD kits that fill the gap of inadequate items to treat these conditions in current, emergency health kits. Likewise, HHI and MTI have joined advocacy efforts in the prevention of NCDs in emergencies.  Learn more about responding to emergencies, requesting products and available resources to improve your impact by clicking here! Together, we can make a difference!


  1. WHO | WHO responding to unprecedented scale of humanitarian emergencies. Who.int. 2014. http://www.who.int/features/2014/humanitarian-emergency-response/en/ (accessed 12 April 2018).
  2. Global Humanitarian Overview 2018. Interactive.unocha.org. 2018. https://interactive.unocha.org/publication/globalhumanitarianoverview/ (accessed 12 April 2018).
  3. WHO | Communicable diseases and crises. Who.int. http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/pht/comdisease/en/ (accessed 19 April 2018).
  4. Addressing noncommunicable diseases in emergencies. World Health Organization. 2015. http://www.who.int/features/2015/ncd-emergencies-ukraine/en/ (accessed 12 April 2018).
  5. Non communicable diseases kit 2016 (NCDK). World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/emergencies/kits/ncdk/en/ (accessed 12 April 2018).
  6. WHO guidelines on noncommunicable diseases and risk factors, injuries and disabilities. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/publications/guidelines/chronic_diseases/en/ (accessed 19 April 2018).
  7. Non Communicable Diseases | Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Hhi.harvard.edu. https://hhi.harvard.edu/research/NCD#intro (accessed 12 April 2018).
  8. Sethi S, Jonsson R, Skaff R, Tyler F. Global Health: Science and Practice | “Dedicated to what works in global health programs”. Ghspjournal.org. 2017. http://www.ghspjournal.org/ (accessed 12 April 2018).