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July 14, 2000

New Study Shows Humanitarian Workers Increasingly Put Own Lives on the Line

Deaths among humanitarian workers have risen dramatically over the past decade, and international relief is now being provided to increasingly dangerous places, according to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The study appears in the July 15th issue of the British Medical Journal.

The researchers undertook this study because the changing demands confronted by relief workers often place them in greater danger. "War between rival states has been largely replaced by economically driven internal conflict, which puts the lives of civilians -- and the humanitarian workers who assist them -- at ever increasing risk," said Gilbert Burnham, MD, PhD, associate professor, International Health, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The study looks at 382 worker deaths between 1985 and 1998, drawing on data from the Red Cross, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. The authors categorized the deaths according to cause: intentional violence (death by guns, bombs, landmines, and other weapons); unintentional violence (accidental deaths such as drownings or airplane crashes); motor vehicle accidents; and other causes, including disease and other natural causes.

Intentional violence emerged as the leading killer of humanitarian workers, causing 67.5 percent of the deadly outcomes. Most victims either died in cross fire or were killed in cold blood. Motor vehicle accidents were the next most frequent cause of death, at 17.1 percent. Unintentional violence accounted for 7.2 percent of deaths, while other causes were implicated in 8.3 percent.

The researchers recommend humanitarian workers take preventive measures, such as wearing helmets and protective jackets, in order to decrease the risk of death. Better training for drivers may also decrease deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents. The authors stressed, however, that preventing deaths by intentional violence is more difficult.

"We feel we have to provide assistance, even in places that are dangerous," said Burnham. "If the United Nations becomes more seriously involved in Siera Leone or the Congo, for example, we'll certainly see more deaths among aid workers."

Funding for this study was provided by the World Health Organization, Division of Emergency and Humanitarian Action (EHA).

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Brigham @ 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.