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Public health in emergencies

Tippy taps used to teach children about hygiene in Indonesia.

At a glance

In emergencies, Oxfam's public health teams ensure that the water and sanitation facilities we deliver are used properly to prevent the spread of disease.


Oxfam is widely known for its public health work in emergencies. The rapid supply of clean water to populations displaced from their own homes is vital, and Oxfam has particular expertise in this area.

Also see our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene promotion (WASH) section for information on both emergency and long-term development.

Oxfam's role

During emergencies, Oxfam's Public Health Engineers (PHEs) and Public Health Promoters (PHPs) work with communities to create an environment in which public health risks are reduced and the safety and dignity of emergency-affected communities is enhanced. 

Oxfam's public health humanitarian work focuses on:

  • The provision of clean water

  • Improved sanitation and vector control

  • The promotion of activities essential for promoting health and a healthy environment

  • The distribution of items essential for health and hygiene

To ensure maximum impact of our and others' humanitarian programmes, Oxfam promotes coordination and collaboration with other national and international, governmental and non-governmental humanitarian agencies.

We also aim to maximise the impact of our own emergency public health programmes by coordinating public health activities with other parts of the operation - such as food security and livelihoods - and ensuring that they are supported by effective advocacy and communication.

Oxfam has a firm commitment to ensuring public health assessments are conducted and analysed in the context of existing gender roles and social relations, and their relevance to current risk, vulnerability and mitigation of disaster effects. Prevention and care work is also integrated into programmes targeting communities at risk from HIV and AIDS.

Oxfam adheres firmly to the minimum standards set out in the SPHERE charter.

Read more about Oxfam's approach to Public Health in Emergencies in our Technical Briefing Notes.

Our approach

What we do

Through a combination of direct implementation and support for partners, Oxfam performs the following public health activities in emergencies:

  • We assess public health risks and the capacity of key stakeholders to respond
  • We find out about local norms and practices and identify appropriate technical options
  • We develop communication strategies to raise awareness of public health risks and solutions
  • We consult communities on the location, design and management of facilities, and explore appropriate ways for them to be involved in implementing and monitoring the intervention
  • We recruit, train and support local staff, and explore options to create partnerships through which to deliver the programme
  • We establish two-way communication with beneficiaries, and modify programme activities according to feedback
  • We establish a mechanism for monitoring the technical quality  of interventions


What we don't do

  • We do not carry out medical interventions, though we may advocate for others to provide clinical services if a needs assessment reveals a gap in provision
  • We do not provide community-based post-traumatic stress counselling, though staff are supported to cope with working with stressed communities, and general psycho-social support is provided for beneficiaries through enabling opportunities for recreation and active community involvement in programme activities and decision-making
  • We only consider the construction of roads, bridges, permanent housing, urban sewage and water projects in very exceptional circumstances - if there is a great need and no other capacity to respond

Oxfam avoids these areas of work because of a lack of in-house technical expertise; the high demand on management capacity to ensure effective implementation; the high capital cost; and because they often require longer-term resourcing than is possible within an emergency programme time-frame.