Medicine Cabinet -- Reiner W. Gloor

Public health impact of disasters

Posted on October 03, 2014

THE WORLD RISK INDEX REPORT (2012) said that the Philippines ranks third among countries with the highest disaster risks globally. The country’s geographic location in the Pacific Ring of Fire puts it at the path of multitudes of natural disasters such as typhoons, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

Natural and man-made disasters have imposed exacting exorbitant financial and economic costs on countries like the Philippines. Moreover, they have huge implications on the lives and health of millions of Filipinos.

With this, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) and the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP) conducted an important forum on the “Public Health Impact of Disasters” on Sept. 27 and 28.

The forum was intended to focus on the immediate, medium- and long-term impacts of natural disasters on millions of affected individuals and communities. Discussions also revolved around how the public, private, and the nongovernmental sectors contribute in helping rebuild the lives of survivors.

The recent slew of disasters that devastated communities in the Philippines has killed and injured thousands, while at the same time displacing millions of Filipinos. After all, the Philippines, along with other Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Japan and China were in the world’s top 10 countries with most significant disasters by fatalities in 2013, said PHAP and PHAPCares Foundation president Francis Del Val during the forum.

FOCAP president Manuel Mogato noted that journalists are made witnesses to the impact of disasters as they cover major calamities including super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) and the recent events involving Mayon volcano.

Resource persons during the FOCAP-PHAP forum were experts on disaster preparedness and response. The session on “Climate Forecast & Seismic Probabilities” were led by Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) Weather Specialist Joseph Basconcillo, Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) Director Renato Solidum, and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Francis Tolentino.

“The Anatomy of Disasters -- Response, Recovery and Rehabilitation” panel was composed of seasoned leaders in emergency management, namely Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon, Office of Civil Defense-National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (OCD-NDRRMC) Administrator Undersecretary Alexander Pama, and Albay Governor Joey Salceda.

Providing perspective on the “Public Health Impact of Disasters” were Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Teodoro Herbosa, Area Cluster for NCR and Southern Luzon, and World Health Organization (WHO) Country Representative Dr. Julie Lyn Hall.

Leading the session on “Preventing Diseases and Outbreaks during Disasters” were DOH Undersecretary Janette Garin, Women, Children and Family Health Cluster, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Disaster Risk Reduction and Response Director Thelsa Biolena, Philippine Foundation for Vaccination’s Dr. Fatima Gimenez and Dr. Gloria Fabrigas, officer in charge of the Tacloban City Welfare Development Office.

Notably on health concerns, disasters and their aftermath may trigger outbreaks of communicable diseases, recurrence of chronic illnesses, and even destruction of health facilities and death of health and medical professionals. All these factors combined disrupt the efficient functioning of a health care delivery system.

Away from the media spotlight, the mental health of survivors as they cope with post-disaster realities and come to terms with either the death of a loved one or the havoc on their livelihood is another health issue that must be given attention and action.

As the provision of emergency health services to the affected population gives way to rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts and services, severely damaged or destroyed health facilities also need the same amount of attention.

In the case of the WHO, it is one of the strong advocates of rebuilding the health system as “part and parcel of rebuilding lives and livelihoods” among those affected by disasters. The WHO believes that a healthy population is crucial to the recovery of an area devastated by a disaster.

For example, among the WHO Philippines priorities after the initial emergency relief phase of typhoon Haiyan changed to early recovery efforts were the restoration and expansion of essential health services, rebuilding and reviving clinics and hospitals, preventing the spread of diseases, and the widening of mental health services provision.

While the risk of the emergence of communicable and infectious diseases is high in crowded evacuation centers -- not to mention that water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever and vector-borne diseases like dengue may also have an outbreak in these locales -- it is expected that survivors will also seek medical attention and care on acute respiratory infections, fever, high blood pressure, skin diseases, fresh injuries from clearing debris, or follow-up care for injuries and wounds sustained in the typhoon.

Responding to the ongoing public health care needs of survivors, notably maternal and child health care and care for those afflicted with lifestyle diseases and their complications, are also among the challenges.

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