The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is mobilizing health experts to assess the impact of yesterday's earthquake on the health situation in Haiti and working with other United Nations agencies, international partners, and local authorities to mobilize and coordinate relief and recovery efforts focused on the quake's survivors.
In addition to causing unknown deaths and injuries, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed or severely damaged at least eight health facilities, including at least four hospitals (see PAHO Situation Report). Compensating for the lost health services will be a key part of the relief response, noted Dr. Jon Andrus, PAHO's Deputy Director, in a press briefing today.
Andrus noted that other immediate health priorities include:
- Search and rescue of survivors trapped beneath rubble.
- Treatment of people with major injuries.
- Prevention of infection in wounds.
- Provision of clean water and sanitation, and food for those in need.
- Control of communicable diseases, such as diarrheal diseases and respiratory infections.
PAHO/WHO's Country Office in Port-au-Prince was partially damaged by the quake, forcing its staff to work out of temporary facilities. In addition to its in-country staff, the organization is mobilizing its Regional Disaster Response Team, which is expected to arrive in Haiti tomorrow.
Andrus noted that Haiti, as the poorest country in the hemisphere and having suffered through four major hurricanes or storms during 2008, is especially vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters. However, he said lessons learned from disasters throughout the Americas and the world should be used to improve the relief and recovery response.
Among the lessons he cited were:
- The bodies of victims of earthquakes are not a significant health threat to survivors. Mass burials are ill-advised, and all efforts should be made to identify victims and provide them with proper burials. This respects the human rights and mental health needs of surviving family members.
- Disaster assistance from donor countries and organizations is best provided on the basis of on-the-ground needs assessments, and in coordination with national authorities.
- Field hospitals set up by donor countries and organizations must be self-sufficient and should not require support from the local community.
- Hospitals can and should be built to withstand the impact of disasters and should be planned and equipped to remain functioning after disasters.
"The additional cost of building hospitals to be disaster-safe is marginal," said Dr. Andrus, "and so is the cost of retrofitting existing facilities. Most important, these costs are negligible in comparison with the cost of a failed hospital. Donor countries and organizations should keep this mind for Haiti's longer term recovery."
Pan American Health Organization