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Health at the International Rescue Committee

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The mission of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. Our vision is that the IRC will lead the humanitarian field by implementing high-impact, cost-effective programs for people affected by crisis, and shape global policy and practice by sharing our learning and experience with others.

All IRC programs are designed to achieve meaningful change in people’s health, safety, education, economic wellbeing and ability to influence the decisions that affect their lives. The International Rescue Committee is a leading humanitarian agency dedicated to the health and survival of the most vulnerable people around the world. From the earliest stages of emergencies through recovery, we provide essential services.

For example, we:

  • Provide primary health care services, including reproductive health, child health, nutrition and mental health
  • Support environmental health services, including water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Rebuild health systems, including information, quality assurance and governance systems
  • Conduct research and monitoring to enlarge the evidence base on global health
  • Make services more effective and sustainable by working across disciplines, with colleagues from children’s programs, economic recovery and development, governance and protection


More than 51 million people have been forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution. As a result, millions of people, particularly women and children, die each year of preventable causes in countries affected by crisis. Most of these deaths result from disruptions to sanitation, food, medicine and access to basic health care.

  • Water and sanitation. Safe waste disposal, hand-washing with soap and safe drinking water could save the lives of 1.5 million children every year.
  • Child survival. More than half of early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, cost-effective interventions. Nearly half of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition.
  • Reproductive health. Maternal deaths would drop by 67% if all women who wanted to avoid unintended pregnancies had access to family planning, and all pregnant women and their newborns had access to skilled care.
  • Mental health. 14% of the entire world’s premature deaths and years lived with disability are attributed to mental, neurological and substance use disorders. 90% of individuals needing access to mental health care cannot access it.


IRC practitioners provide technical assistance to more than 30 country programs. Technical advisors are charged with staying abreast of the best available research and practices in their respective fields and sharing these with the IRC’s frontline teams. They also lead advocacy strategies to encourage partners and policy makers to adopt the interventions proven to be effective based on our research and experience.

Ensure access to water and sanitation services

The IRC provides essential facilities and resources to communities to prevent disease, increase personal safety and improve food security. In 2019, the IRC served 2.5 million people with newly built or rehabilitated water services, reached 838,000 people with access to sanitation facilities, and reached 3.3 million people with hygiene messages. Through research and programming, the IRC is improving humanitarian approaches to hygiene in crisis settings. For example, the IRC and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health are collaborating on a research project to identify problems that women in crisis face with regards to menstrual hygiene management and solutions for responding relief agencies.

Increase contraceptive choice for women

The IRC and its local partners are working to dramatically expand family planning coverage in conflict-affected communities. We prioritize access to contraception because it is the most effective
way to reduce the number of unsafe abortions, maternal deaths and pregnancy-related disabilities; we also believe that women and girls have a right to determine when to become pregnant and their desired family size, regardless of where they live. Through enhancing access to contraception, in 2019, the IRC prevented an estimated 56,453 unintended pregnancies and 19,807 unsafe abortions.

The IRC’s Family Planning and Post Abortion Care (FP-PACE) program began its current family planning program in four conflict-affected countries: Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Pakistan. In just four years, the program ensured contraceptive choices at 140 crisis-affected and post-conflict health facilities. 95,000 women began using new contraceptive methods. The program is now expanding to other conflict-affected countries.

Bring life-saving treatment to the homes of children

More than 6.8 million children under the age of five died in 2018. One third of these deaths were caused by pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria—diseases for which effective, evidence-based and low-cost treatments are available. Since 2004, the IRC has used a community approach to bring life-saving treatment directly to children in the most underserved areas. In 2019 alone, more than 13,000 community health workers supported by the IRC have provided more than 416,000 treatments for pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria. 

The IRC has introduced integrated community case management in 10 countries. In Sierra Leone, an impact evaluation found that this program reduced all-cause child mortality by 25% in the area where it was implemented. In Rwanda, where the approach has been scaled up nationally, an outside scientific review determined that the program played a substantial part in the country’s dramatic decline in child mortality.

Fight malnutrition, from the ground to the globe

The IRC works to prevent and treat malnutrition and improve access to treatment for children in the hardest-to-reach areas. In 2019 alone, we treated 222,163 children under five for acute malnutrition and supported more than 769 health sites managing acute malnutrition treatment programs.

Through pioneering research, the IRC has developed a new approach for treating children with acute malnutrition that offers the promise of dramatically expanded access to care for children who need it. The IRC has also developed simplified tools to help low-literate providers diagnose and treat acute malnutrition in communities making it more accessible.

Address mental health and psychosocial needs

Mental health and psychosocial support are integral to emergency and recovery response, which was strikingly demonstrated by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Communities confronted fear, death and painful changes to deeply rooted practices, such as burials. When Ebola Treatment Units did not address community fears, individuals refrained from seeking care. The IRC responded by designing interventions according to the social and cultural processes of affected communities and facilitating community-led psychological first aid, support groups and counseling. These efforts supported neighborhoods surrounding Ebola treatment centers, as well as clients and staff of health facilities. The IRC is also working to ensure that IRC staff, as well as other actors on the ground, are trained in providing psychological first aid, so that our services in health, education and other sectors contribute to mental healing. In 2019, the IRC provided nearly 30,000 consultations for mental health conditions.

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