How Doctors Without Borders Finds and Responds to Hidden Emergencies

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responds to some of the world’s most high-profile medical emergencies – and some of the least visible, underreported crises of our time.

How do we discover, independently evaluate, and swiftly respond to emergencies – whether or not they make the nightly news? Watch the video below or read on to see the exploratory, or "explo," mission in action.



Bad News Arrives

"All emergencies are not on the breaking news." – Mathieu Fortoul, Doctors Without Borders Desk Communications Advisor

The first step in responding to a medical emergency is learning that one exists. With a high-profile natural disaster or armed conflict, the emergency is there for all to see. But it’s a different story if a crisis hits a remote community or a disease outbreak begins to spread under the radar. That’s why Doctors Without Borders relies on a constant stream of information from a variety of sources to help identify potential emergencies.

A villager tells a Doctors Without Borders mobile clinic coordinator how the people of his village are hiding in the bush, fleeing reoccurring waves of violence by militias in Bambari, Central African Republic.

Our field teams often uncover new, unexpected health threats while working on other projects or pick up rumors of health emergencies that need to be tracked down. At other times, alerts about potential crises come through official channels such as the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, a country’s Ministry of Health, or local health centers that can’t keep up with a sudden spike in medical needs.

What is an Explo Team?

“[We ask] some simple questions that are easy to follow – but perhaps may not be out there in the media – and when we find that pocket that needs our support, we provide the necessary supplies to them.” – Mary Jo Frawley, Doctors Without Borders Nurse

When Doctors Without Borders gets wind of a potential emergency – such as an outbreak, a natural disaster, or people fleeing violence – we quickly dispatch an exploratory, or “explo,” team to investigate. This lets us tailor our response to the real medical needs on the ground. An explo team is typically made up of experienced staff with complementary skills.

Getting on the Ground

"If there's a way – and there’s always a way – we find it.” – Suzanne Ceresko, Doctors Without Borders Logistics and Operations Coordinator

The moment Doctors Without Borders decides to mobilize, a vast and agile logistics network kicks into gear, ready to move people, materials, and equipment into the field within hours.

In our supply centers in Europe, or in pre-stocked regional warehouses in areas prone to crisis, logisticians quickly load up specialized emergency kits tailored to the specific medical needs at hand. In most large crises, planes fly everything in so our medical teams can begin treating people immediately. For areas where planes can’t land, field teams continue in trucks or motorbikes, boats or helicopters, even on foot. We keep emergency cash reserves ready at all times, so we can act where and when the need is greatest – without waiting on donations or grants. But if speed is not of the essence, we reduce costs by shipping supplies by sea.

Doctors Without Borders logisticians in Lebanon organize a human chain to get four tons of emergency medical supplies across a river after an airstrike destroyed the last passable bridge.

Going Where Others Can’t Go

“The fact that Doctors Without Borders in the U.S. doesn’t receive any government funds allows us the flexibility and the adaptability to react quickly to the needs in the field.” – Jonathan Simms, Doctors Without Borders Project Coordinator

Frequently, we will hear from other aid organizations about situations they have encountered that do not fit their mandate or capabilities. Doctors Without Borders can quickly analyze and adapt to unexpected emergencies because our donors entrust us with unrestricted funds and we take no government money. If our doctors see children sick with measles, they don’t have to worry that an earmarked grant only allows us to treat malnutrition. They can just get to work.

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