Humanitarian crises, population displacement and epidemic diseases, 1901–2010

Recent events have thrown the age-old association of humanitarian crises, population displacement and epidemic diseases into sharp focus. The revolutionary wave of protests and wars that are known collectively as the ‘Arab Spring’ resulted in the geographical displacement of many hundreds of thousands of people over the last two years. In 2012 alone, the Syrian uprising prompted the exodus of over 0.5 million people to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expecting this number to double in the coming months. Environmental disasters, too, have added to the recent mix of displaced persons. Over 1.0 million people were displaced by the Haiti earthquake in 2010, while a similar number were displaced by the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan during 2011. These and similar events have had infectious disease-related consequences for the displaced populations and, in some instances, for the populations into which they have fled.

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A camp for the internally displaced in Haiti that was established in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake on 12 January 2010. Poor living conditions promoted the spread of a major epidemic of cholera in Haiti later in that year. Source: CDC/Lt. Cmdr. Gary Brunette.

The infectious diseases that are commonly entrained with displacement events vary by time period, geographical location and type of event. Our project aims to illuminate the geographical dimensions of mass population displacement and disease in relation to the gamut of wars and political repressions, development projects, environmental change and disasters, 1901–2010. This will represent the first attempt to undertake a systematic geographical analysis of the displacement-disease nexus over the span of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the rich archives of the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) and the World Health Organization (WHO), we will establish global electronic databases of infectious disease events in relation to mass population movements since the beginning of the 20th century. This information will allows us to decipher the short-, medium- and long-term geographical patterns and consequences of displacement-associated epidemics with a view to informing future interventions.

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Major routes followed by refugee returnees from India after the independence of Bangladesh in December 1971. Maps of the type shown here were used by epidemiologists to track the introduction and spread of smallpox with returnees from refugee camps at Salt Lake (Calcutta) and elsewhere in India. More generally, the map emphasises the challenge of mass population movements to the World Health Organization’s global smallpox eradication programme in the early 1970s. Source: CDC/Dr. Michael Schwartz.

The results of our research will be published by Oxford University Press as a full-colour A4 Atlas of Displaced Populations and Epidemic Diseases. The databases will be available to other scholars and, beyond the academy, to national and international organisations involved in health promotion, the delivery of humanitarian assistance and development.

Professor Matthew Smallman-Raynor
University of Nottingham

Professor Andrew Cliff
University of Cambridge

Matthew was awarded a Research Project Grant in December 2012.