Humanitarian organisations must do more for older people in emergencies: It's not only the under-fives who need help in crises

18 December

Experts from the humanitarian organisations Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) and HelpAge International say emergency aid has failed to address the needs of older people in emergency situations and are calling on donors and humanitarian agencies to ensure that this vulnerable group is included in any emergency response.

Writing in this week's PLOS Medicine, Dr Unni Karunakara, President of Médecins Sans Frontières, and Frances Stevenson, Head of Emergencies at HelpAge International argue:

"As the numbers of older people affected by humanitarian crises and disasters increase, humanitarian actors need to adapt policy and practice to ensure that the needs of older people are consistently and continually considered and that this vulnerable group is no longer neglected."

The authors call for change:

"We call for policy changes by humanitarian agencies and donors to ensure that the needs of this vulnerable group are met."

Older people are less likely to flee in times of conflict due to difficulties with travel and are reluctant to leave their homes, land and possessions. In addition, older people are often not sought out or prioritised within the humanitarian response. Many are not able to travel to health facilities, stand in queues for food distributions, carry heavy packages of food or containers of water, or compete with younger people for relief supplies.

According to the authors older people are often not cared for within their families despite the common assumption that they are supported within a family network. As an example, following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, around 10% of the older population was living without family support and in the camps for internally displaced people in Darfur in Sudan half of older people live alone.

"Humanitarian agencies, donors, and international bodies neglect older people's health and nutrition."

Furthermore, there are considerable gaps in knowledge and research about the needs of older people in emergencies.

"Older people are not monitored in emergencies and they are not prioritised despite evidence of disproportionate mortality and morbidity in this group."

Notes to Editors

1. Citation: Karunakara U, Stevenson F (2012) Ending Neglect of Older People in the Response to Humanitarian Emergencies. PLoS Med 9(12): e1001357. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001357

2. Please use the following link in any media coverage to provide access to the paper (becomes live after embargo lifts): 

3. Press can preview the article here:

4. Funding: No specific funding was received for writing this article.

5. Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist. UK was elected International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in June 2010, and has been involved with MSF in various capacities, including as a medical doctor, advisor, and board member since 1995. FS is Head of Emergencies at HelpAge International, and has been involved with MSF in various capacities including Head of Mission and board member since 1995.

CONTACT: MSF Press office on 07770235740 or HelpAge Press office on +44 (0) 20 7148 7623

Unni Karunakara
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Geneva, Switzerland
Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, United States of America

Polly Markandya
Head of Communications
Direct Line: +44 (0)20 7067 4236
Mobile: +44 (0)79 666 777 25
twitter @pollylondon

Attila Kulcsar
Media Relations Manager
HelpAge International
Direct Line: +44 (0) 20 7148 7623
Mobile: +44 (0) 7887788870

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