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Learning lessons from field surveys in humanitarian contexts: a case study of field surveys conducted in North Kivu, DRC 2006-2008

DOI: 10.1186/1752-1505-3-8

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In media and agency reports on complex emergencies, an estimate of the number of people who have died, the prevalence of childhood malnutrition and other key health indicators are often quoted. Although a discriminating reader may understand that these are estimates, we rarely question how or from where these numbers come. In most cases, estimates are obtained by means of field surveys which are subject to a number of limitations. In the past, the application of standard survey methods by various humanitarian actors has been criticised [1]. Currently, different methods of conducting field surveys are the subject of debate among epidemiologists and their strengths and weakness have been described in the literature [2-6]. Beyond the technical arguments, decision makers may find it difficult to conceptualize what the estimates actually mean. For instance, what makes this particular situation an emergency? And how should the operational response - humanitarian, political, even military - be adapted accordingly [7,8]? This brings into question not only the quality of the survey methodology, but also the difficulties epidemiologists face in interpreting results and selecting the most important information to guide operations.As a case study, we reviewed publicly available field surveys of a current acute-on-chronic humanitarian crisis - North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - to examine the methodologies employed, the findings presented, the interpretation of the results and the recommendations made. The eastern DRC Province of North Kivu has been the scene of conflict that has erupted sporadically for over a decade (Figure 1). The most recent renewal of violence has forced some 250,000 people to flee their homes since August 2008 [9].We searched PubMed/Medline for articles published from January 1, 2006 to January 1, 2009, in English, French, German, and Spanish using the key words ["mortality" (major topic) OR "nutrition" (major topic)] AND ["Congo" (text word)


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