No 33 (1998) p8

Aid workers get poor bill of health

Aid workers often receive little training and warning about the living and working conditions awaiting them in the field, and the recruitment procedures used by many relief agencies are often less than professional, says a new WHO study. It also found shortcomings in their medical preparation and psychological training.

"Many staff are recruited hurriedly and casually with little time for references or checking of references. [...] Briefing on security issues and political matters appears to be especially deficient and staff sometimes feel they are placed at unnecessary risk as a result," according to the study carried out in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania in February 1998.

Among more than 200 relief workers questioned, 53% had not received any personal medical briefing prior to departure. Vaccinations were not checked for one worker in five.

"It is not unusual for [emergency aid] staff to arrive at duty stations without having first had a medical exam, a personal medical kit or any medical briefing…Advice about food and water safety, infectious and parasitic diseases is often lacking," the study found.

Only half felt that they were able to function well on the day that they were interviewed. More than half reported general fatigue (59%) and one in two had a headache. "The reported frequency of sleeping difficulties, anger and irritability is also noteworthy," the study says, "not only because of its immediate implications for the health of staff themselves, but also because of its wider implications for team work and performance under pressure."

Common causes of anxiety for field workers were: contract and employment, security, family and health issues. The three main general health concerns were over diarrhoeal diseases, other gastrointestinal/digestive problems and skin ailments. Almost 20% reported having a diarrhoeal attack in the two weeks before. This, says WHO, suggests that "more deserves to be done in terms of information, education and management of food and water consumption," Well over half the people surveyed had not received any briefing about food safety and/or measures against food-borne problems. Almost one-quarter said they had been recruited solely on the basis of written correspondence and had not been asked to provide any references.

WHO presented the reprort to a meeting on 8 and 9 July. It is now to approach relief agencies to discuss current policies and identify obstacles to the implementation of good recruitment and health practices.#

From WHO press release 1998/51.
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