Earthquake in Chile shows benefits of disaster preparedness

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An earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck Chile on 28 February, leaving 521 dead and 56 missing. The quake impacted 6 of the country’s 13 regions, where 80% of the population lives. The majority of the country’s hospital facilities are located in these regions, with 77% (20,950) of hospital beds.

Two months after the event, authorities estimate that the earthquake affected 2 million people; 370,000 homes, 73 hospitals, and 4,012 schools (nearly half the schools in the affected area) were damaged or completely destroyed. The costs of losses and damage are estimated to reach US$ 30 billion, equivalent to 17% of the country’s gross domestic product.

The Reconstruction Plan announced by the Chilean Government proposes numerous measures, across all sectors, including the repair or replacement of 79 hospitals and more than 150 clinics.

Health sector response was fast and efficient

The health service network was severely affected, especially in the regions of Maule and Bío Bío. More than 4,000 of the country’s hospital beds were lost, but the Ministry of Health was able to restore health services in a matter of days. Field hospitals (national and international) were set up to meet increased demand and, where necessary, services were relocated to functional facilities.      
PAHO began to provide health authorities with technical support and expertise within hours of the earthquake. PAHO/WHO’s office in Chile redirected its services to assist and collaborate with the Ministry of Health.

Using information from the rapid damage and needs assessment, PAHO/WHO mobilized international resources to address the impact on public health and to restore health services. In the three months since the earthquake, PAHO’s collaboration with Chilean authorities has focused on the following actions:

  • Support operations in health facilities by providing equipment such as power generators, medical and clinical laboratory equipment, arranging for the donation of medicines, and assisting in improving operations in 10 hospitals. Advice was given on options for installing temporary modular facilities in order to reestablish hospital capacity. Training was provided on conducting hospital assessments with a focus on safe hospitals.
  • Support the Ministry of Health in assessing structural and nonstructural damage sustained by hospitals. Make recommendations on repairs and reconstruction consistent with the safe hospitals strategy.
  • Coordinate donation of vaccines (especially for hepatitis A and H1N1 influenza) thereby supporting immunization campaigns in the affected areas.
  • Assist in developing a communication strategy for health promotion in the affected areas.
  • Strengthen epidemiological surveillance, disease control, and public health measures relating to safe water, food, and sanitation.
  • Initiate a mental health plan in the areas affected by the disaster.

The earthquake in Chile reminds us of the importance of developing or updating emergency and disaster plans for the health sector, both regionally and at the national level. It also highlights how critical it is to have strong coordination between institutions that are part of the national civil protection system. The crisis provides opportunities to realize strategies, plans, and measures for safe hospitals, so that new and rebuilt facilities will be able to continue to provide services after the next disaster.

A wide range of documents relating to this earthquake can be accessed at: www.paho.org/chi.

Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

525 23rd Street, N.W. - Washington, D.C. 20037, U.S.A.
202.974.3399 - Fax 202.775.4578 - disaster@paho.org - www.paho.org/disasters