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Existing Disaster Resources Lack Information for Children with Special Healthcare Needs

Young girl smiles with disaster relief professional

June 26, 2018

Families with children who have access and mobility challenges, chronic illness, or intellectual or developmental disabilities require targeted messages before, during, and after disasters to ensure that they understand risks to their children's health and can take measures to avoid harm and build resilience. A review conducted by Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, FACP and Tom Hipper, MSPH, MA of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at the Drexel University School of Public Health, examines existing resources about optimal ways to address the disaster information needs and communication preferences of families with children with special healthcare needs.

The study, published online the journal Health Security, reported that an estimated 200 million children worldwide experience some form of disability. In the United States alone, roughly 20 percent of households have a child with special healthcare needs — that’s roughly 11 million children. Despite the vulnerabilities of this population, the disaster information needs of such families remains understudied, with few published evidence-based practices.

Of the 27 disaster information resources reviewed, by lead author Hipper and his team, 74 percent were peer reviewed. Thirty percent of these resources focused on specific events like natural disasters, terrorism, infectious disease outbreaks, and humanitarian emergencies. These studies suggest that parents with medically fragile children require additional information, education, and training to develop an effective disaster preparedness plan for their children. They also lack awareness of schools’ disaster plans, and schools are often unable to meet parents’ expectations for timely, accurate information during a disaster. 

“Last year, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey devastated Florida and Texas causing emergency evacuations and power outages across both regions, this required special planning for families with children who were dependent on medication or special technology,” said Chernak. “The needs of this vulnerable population were extremely difficult to meet in shelters.” 

Study recommendations include the need for research that will increase evidence about optimal forms of communication during all disaster phases both with parents of children with special healthcare needs and with children directly. Healthcare providers and schools are vital sources of information for these families and they must facilitate key preparedness activities. Targeted communication before, during, and after disasters has the potential to prevent injury, avoid post-traumatic stress, and save lives.

In an upcoming study, the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at the Drexel University School of Public Health plans to address the many questions and concerns of parents. Through interviews, focus groups, and surveys, data will be collected from families with children with special healthcare needs. “With the insights of these caregivers, we plan to examine a range of disasters like severe weather events, pandemics, and nuclear reactor accidents,” said Hipper. In addition to parents, healthcare providers and emergency response organizations are to participate so that their needs are clearly outlined to best serve this population.