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Innovation in action

A desire to tackle new healthcare challenges in novel and context-specific ways is essential to the advancement of humanitarian aid, but what innovative methods are currently in development or already being used? Below are examples of innovations in which new approaches are being made to address gaps in healthcare provision.

Healthcare & medical equipment

We have seen from our discussion around logistics in Step 1.14 that there are many barriers to the successful transportation of medicines and vaccines in emergency settings, including maintenance of cold storage. Sure Chill is a solar-powered vaccine refrigerator that keeps medicines and vaccines cool without the need for electricity. It can remain cool for up to ten days without a charge, and automatically regulates its temperature to adjust to the outside climate. These storage refrigerators are currently being used in more than 30 countries, and are becoming an important tool in preventable disease vaccination programmes conducted as part of humanitarian response1.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began using ‘inflatable hospitals’ in 2005 in its response to the Pakistan earthquake. Within two weeks of the disaster the organisation had erected nine inflatable tents that formed a temporary 1000m2 -hospital with a 120-bed capacity, consisting of four operating rooms, an emergency room, and intensive care unit2.

These inflatable hospitals look like an ordinary white tent from the outside. On the inside, however, there are tile floors, access to electricity, medical supplies, and hand washing facilities. They can be erected within 48 hours after an emergency, and the inside adapted according to the setting and population needs. They enable provision of complex medical care, such as obstetrics and surgery, in the absence of traditional health facilities2, and have now been used in other settings including Haiti, Nepal, and South Sudan.

mHealth

The Health in Humanitarian Crises Centre is currently working with the Swiss organisation Terre des Hommes to test IeDA, an electronic clinical protocol used for child consultations. Every nurse in primary health care centres in the north of Burkina Faso is supplied with a tablet and training modules to guide them during child consultations, and the innovation is about to be tested in humanitarian contexts3.

The Red Cross Movement is also developing a new health information system for clinical emergencies deployments based on open source software and tools. During the Ebola outbreak, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) both tested community-based surveillance systems using text messaging technology and could support the health system in Sierra Leone to respond more quickly to any signs of a new outbreak4.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)

In low- and middle-income countries, and particularly in emergency situations, water and sanitation-related diseases can cause unnecessary sickness and death. In addition, women and girls have specific sanitation and hygiene needs that are often left unmet, such as menstruation, and they are at greater risk of sexual or gender-based violence (GBV) if the facilities required are located far from their homes or shelters5-7.

Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is a largely ignored area of intervention. However, the IFRC is currently conducting a study5 across Sudan and Somalia to determine the feasibility and acceptability of MHM kits in emergencies, given the diversity of materials used to manage menstruation across different cultures and contexts. These kits include either disposable pads and a plastic bag, or reusable pads and a bucket, rope, and pegs for washing and drying5-7.

Another innovation, Peepoo, a portable and biodegradable toilet, provides dignity, privacy, and a safer alternative to the shared latrines often available in refugee camp settings. They are being used in ten low-income countries throughout the world, five of which are currently experiencing humanitarian crises. Peepoo interventions include delivery of a portable seat, 28 biodegradable collection bags, and hygiene supplies, such as soap and buckets8.

Making money accessible

Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) provide money to households with no constraints on use or tied to specific behavioural conditions, such as keeping vaccination records for children up-to-date or a pregnant woman making regular visits to a health facility9. While the primary objective of CCTs is to alleviate poverty, they can also have a positive impact on health and health outcomes. In Honduras and Colombia, a 3-10% reduction in diarrhoea incidence among children is attributed to CCTs10.

In the past, transfers have often been made by putting cash in envelopes. However, digital payment technologies now offer direct transfer opportunities without the need for a bank account. Payments can be made directly to a mobile phone, and with ownership in low- and middle-income countries at high levels, this method offers a cheap, fast, traceable, and secure means of accessing funds.

Shelter and housing

In humanitarian disasters displacement or loss of housing is commonplace. Access to a safe and secure shelter during a humanitarian crisis can ensure privacy, dignity, security and access to appropriate water and sanitation facilities. A wide range of shelters are offered during crises, ranging from temporary, such as tents, tarps, and wooden frames, to transitional shelters that are more durable and longer lasting11.

Recently, IKEA and UNICEF and teamed up to create the ‘Better Shelter’. This transitional shelter is safe, sustainable, and easy to erect. Supplies are transported in two large boxes and include all necessary tools for construction. Once erected, they are 17.5m2 square and can comfortably sleep five people. The roof is lined with solar panels, which can be used to charge an LED light during the day. At night these last for four hours, and can also charge a mobile phone through a USB port. These structures can be adapted for other uses depending on the need. For example, communities have created libraries and health clinics using the supplies. In 2015, 10,000 units of ‘Better Shelter’ were delivered to humanitarian settings worldwide12.

These are just a few examples of innovations in use across the sector. Developments in information and digital technologies will undoubtedly drive wider change in the humanitarian system, and in the next two steps we consider use of technological interventions for both individuals and wider populations. Have you seen or used any specific innovative tools, methods, or approaches in a humanitarian context? If so, find and share any relevant information you can find in the Comments area.

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This article is from the free online course:

Health in Humanitarian Crises

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine