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  • Understand the history of international humanitarian assistance, including the key organizations involved and the principles and laws governing their work
  • Know the most common causes of morbidity and mortality in populations affected by conflict, disaster and terrorism, and the key assessment strategies and public health interventions to consider
  • Be familiar with prevention and preparedness approaches to disasters and acts of terrorism, and the roles and limitations of health interventions in conflict mitigation and humanitarian protection
  • Be able to apply lessons learned to actual cases involving conflict, disaster, displacement, and terrorism
  • Know where to go for updated information on the field of humanitarian assistance and its practice

A health professional who wishes to make a positive impact in a disastrous situation faces many challenges. To begin with, goals must be defined. Is the aim of humanitarian medical work to reduce death, sickness, and suffering during a period of acute vulnerability? Or does the work extend to promoting the sustainable development of health systems and advancing peace, justice, and the respect of human rights? What if the choice to engage in relief work is motivated by religious, political, or military objectives?

Whether or not the aims of the work are narrowly or broadly defined, practitioners need excellent technical skills in evidence-based medicine and public health to avoid doing more harm than good. They must become rapidly familiar with the particular health problems threatening the population in question and the available resources (structural, financial, human, and organizational) and strategies that exist to cope with them. The most effective aid workers elicit and prioritize the health concerns of those being served: respect, support, learn from, and, when appropriate, guide colleagues; coordinate efforts; maintain flexibility; and strive for equity and efficiency while ensuring that assistance also reaches the most vulnerable populations. These aid workers also dedicate themselves to serving others while taking care to maintain personal health and equanimity in the midst of unfamiliar and stressful situations.

Experienced aid workers realize that their work may put them in danger, and they contribute to individual and group security by respecting sound security protocols, maintaining positive interpersonal relationships (with officials, community members, and colleagues), and collecting and sharing relevant information. In sum, the consummate humanitarian health worker combines compassion, commitment, and integrity with technical proficiency in promoting the delivery of the most appropriate, evidence-based, and up-to-date preventive and curative health services—a tall order in what are often very challenging environments!

The potential dangers, stresses, frustrations, and, at times, monotony of humanitarian work should not be underestimated. Still, far from being a selfless exercise, the rewards of this work are many.

The word humanitarian evokes a mysterious figure wearing a stained white coat and operating by candle light to the percussion of bombs and artillery rounds. The epithet that graces the frontispiece of the NATO war surgery handbook only reinforces this romantic view of wartime medicine: “[H]ow large and various ...

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