Challenges in public health and epidemiology research in humanitarian settings: experiences from the field

BMC Public Health. 2020 Nov 23;20(1):1761. doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-09851-7.


Background: Humanitarian settings often present unique scientific challenges and conditions that distinguish them from standard research settings. While a number of these challenges are faced in both standard settings and humanitarian settings, factors unique to humanitarian settings such as inaccessibility and time sensitivities further exacerbate the effects of these challenges. This analysis focuses on experiences in post-disaster contexts such as Indonesia and India following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and Nepal following the 2015 earthquake.

Discussion: Particular issues that we faced in undertaking research in post-disaster settings include challenges with uncharted ethical and cultural considerations, non-standardised administrative methods for record keeping, data sharing and dissemination. While these issues are not unique to post-disaster humanitarian settings, the time-sensitive nature of our work exacerbated the effects of these concerns. Relying on local partners and making quick decisions to tackle issues is imperative for navigating both foreseen and unforeseen challenges. While pre-emptive action to address these concerns is the most efficient means to expedite research protocols, adaptability and contingency planning are key components of practical research implementation in dynamic situations.

Conclusions: Research is not always a priority in humanitarian settings, so innovative methods are necessary to conduct meaningful and situationally appropriate research in these venues. By understanding available resources, local culture, and political considerations and working efficiently and decisively, we can begin to jump hurdles associated with epidemiologic research in humanitarian settings.

Keywords: Disasters; Epidemiology; Humanitarian settings; Natural hazards.

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Cyclonic Storms
  • Disasters*
  • Earthquakes
  • Epidemiologic Studies*
  • Humans
  • India / epidemiology
  • Indonesia / epidemiology
  • Nepal / epidemiology
  • Philippines / epidemiology
  • Public Health*
  • Tsunamis