Environmental health is the branch of public health concerned with monitoring or mitigating those factors in the environment that affect human health and disease. As a discipline, environmental health is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.
Environmental health practitioners are key members of each AUSMAT deployment.
Environmental health management is especially important during AUSMAT’s response to natural disasters, given the various competing issues of heat related illness, gastroenteritis outbreak prevention and management, and prevention and management of vector borne illness (such as malaria, dengue and rabies).
The health of our staff is supported by good environmental health management, for example heat safety and prevention of infection which may result in illness within the team.
High quality water is vital for the maintenance of health and the prevention of illness during disaster responses.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, local water supplies should be assumed to be contaminated. Drinking water requires boiling or treating with purifiers including chlorine or iodine before use. Groundwater from a bore or spring will generally have a lower bacterial load than water from an open well, which in turn will have a lower bacteria load than river water. Nevertheless, all sources are subject to contamination.
The role of an environmental health practitioner in the field is to provide advice to the AUSMAT team and local authorities, to ensure water is potable and of sufficient quality for use within field hospitals and related critical infrastructure.
Food safety risks are mainly linked to unsafe food storage, handling and preparation. In many cases cooking may be impossible during natural disasters due to the lack of facilities or fuel. Poor sanitation, including lack of safe water and toilet facilities, can compound the risks.
Food safety includes the provision of safe food for AUSMAT staff during deployment as well as the maintenance of safe food for the affected population during the natural disaster.
Key issues to be considered include:
- Food temperature control (above 60° for hot food or below 5°C for cold food)
- Suitable food preparation area (easily cleaned and non-absorbent material)
- Pest and dust control (tarp on a dirt/grass floor and minimum of shade cloth walls and ceiling, control strategies for cockroaches, rodents and ants)
- Sanitiser, thermometer and access to hot water
- Separate sinks or receptacles for the washing of vegetables and equipment
- Hand wash basins
- Adequate dry goods storage area that protects food from pests such as cockroaches, ants, and rodents
- Knowledge and experience of food preparation staff, particularly in relation to temperature control and safe food handling practices.