Providing Emergency Health in Humanitarian Emergencies

Every crisis that we respond to is unique – and so are our emergency health responses.

We’re dedicated to providing access to health services in humanitarian crises because these are when health care needs can be particularly high. Why? Because conflicts and natural disasters can remove people’s access to health care, overwhelm existing services, damage hospitals or health clinics, and disrupt service delivery and supply chains. Flight from conflict and displacement in under-resourced areas can also lead to disease outbreaks – not to mention the need for psychosocial support, continuation of routine childhood immunisations, maternal and child health care, or the care for long-term, non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, or high blood pressure).

Because each crisis that we respond to is unique, there’s no one way to provide essential health services in a humanitarian crisis. Each context is different, the access challenges can vary, and the existing health infrastructure in one location might be different compared to the other areas where we’ve worked. In each location, we design emergency health care responses that suit the needs of the people we serve and the contexts in which we’re working.

All of our health responses fall under the umbrella of emergency health – and these days, all of our health responses are adapted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here’s what that looks like in four very different contexts: South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Jordan.

South Sudan

Chronic underdevelopment and ongoing conflict have led to immense humanitarian needs across South Sudan. Around 5.2 million people in South Sudan are in need of health support, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), while conflict, flooding, and limited functional health infrastructure severely limits access to essential health services. For women seeking maternal health services, children in need of treatment for malnutrition or illnesses like malaria, and families searching for immunisations against  preventable illnesses, the impact can be devastating.

In addition to static programming in places like Jonglei and Upper Nile states, our in-country Emergency Response Team, based in Juba, reacts rapidly to mass displacement, disease outbreaks, high rates of malnutrition, or natural disasters. In South Sudan, provision of emergency health services can mean anything from running a massive measles vaccination campaign to treating acute malnutrition in clinics that we run with partners or on our own. It also means transporting medical supplies via plane, on the backs of motorbikes, or through swamps – something we’ve never balked at doing.


Families in Somalia have faced years of insecurity, but the humanitarian situation in this country has worsened considerably due to droughts, floods, locust swarms, and hunger. Almost four million people in Somalia are in need of essential health care services, but access to these services is hampered by displacement, remoteness, insecurity, or access constraints. Insecurity remains a challenge for humanitarian actors like us – but with careful management, we are able to continue our lifesaving work helping Somali families.

Given the challenging security environment in Somalia, we take a slightly different approach to delivering emergency health support. Our overall goal is to help improve the quality of services offered in local health facilities, so we work closely with national partners to build their capacity to deliver health services to the communities they serve in addition to providing 24/7 maternal health services in clinics and treatment for malnutrition. We use a strong network of peer-to-peer support groups called Care Groups to improve critical nutrition, health and hygiene practises, and provide psychosocial support to families who are struggling to cope. Our focus is on strengthening local systems and building national capacities – all while ensuring that families get the care and support they need to thrive.


Ten years ago, the humanitarian situation inside Syria dominated global headlines. Those needs persist now, even though the global spotlight has turned away from this beautiful and storied country. Some 12.4 million people in Syria need emergency health support, according to UNOCHA. But after 10 years of conflict, less than 60 percent of hospitals in the country are functional. Compounded crises, the cost of health care, and a lack of medical supplies or staff creating significant barriers for families seeking health services. People living with disabilities are disproportionately affected.

We can’t provide emergency health support if the hospitals and health clinics that families rely on are so badly damaged that they cannot be used. For that reason, our emergency health support includes rehabilitating and equipping damaged health clinics and making them safe and accessible for medical staff, community members, and the storage of medication. In addition to supporting the training of medical staff, we set up community health programmes in the areas we serve to ensure that families know what services are available and have access to important health messaging. Where possible, we also provide training to national physiotherapists and ensure that people living with physical disabilities have access to the assistive mobility devices they need to leave their homes and navigate their communities with dignity.



Jordan hosts more than a quarter million refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency.  The vast majority of these refugees are from Syria, though other people have fled from crises in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. Jordan has a comprehensive health care system – one of the best in the region, according to a 2016 report by the World Health Organization – but it’s a system that is often prohibitively expensive for refugee families, many of whom can only earn a few dollars a day working in the informal sector.

Because Jordan’s health care system is so effective, we wanted to find a way to ensure that refugee families could access urgent, essential health services in a way that utilised existing health services. We now provide cash for health services, in which we cover the costs or urgent surgeries, interventions, and treatments for refugee families. With a focus on maternal health, child health, and treatment of non-communicable diseases, our cash-for-health intervention covers medical bills either directly with the hospital or health clinic, or reimburses families who have already paid for treatment. This way, we’re able to provide families with access to critical health services in a way that both meets their health needs and doesn’t undermine an effective health care system.


Emergency health services look different in each country we work in – and that’s necessary because no two humanitarian crises are the same. Our approach may be different, but the end goal is always the same: To enable vulnerable people access the support they need and live with dignity, and help prevent future health crises from happening in future.

(Psst – we’re always on the lookout for dedicated health staff to join our teams. Take a look at our vacancies page to see if one of these jobs suits you!)


Cover photo: © Medair / Odile Meylan

Sources for statistics:

UNOCHA, 2020.Global Humanitarian Overview 2021.

UNHCR, 2021. Jordan Fact Sheet – September 2021.

WHO, 2016. Comprehensive assessment of Jordan’s health information system 2016.

UNOCHA, 2021. Humanitarian Needs Overview 2021: Syrian Arab Republic.


Medair Health and Nutrition services in South Sudan are funded by UK aid from the UK government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Slovak Aid, and generous private donors.


Medair services in Syria are funded by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Swiss Solidarity private donors.


Medair services in Jordan are funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, and the German Federal Foreign Office, and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).and private donors.

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.