Earthquake in Peru: The Myths Return

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altThe earthquake that hit Peru on 15 August 2007 measured 7.9 on the Richter scale. Its epicenter was 60 km from Pisco and 160 km south of Lima. There was damage in more than 20 provinces in southern Peru, especially the regions of Ica, Lima, and Huancavelica. The National Civil Defense Institute (INDECI) reported that the death toll was 519; there were 1,211 people injured, and more than 300,000 affected.

Seven weeks after the earthquake, the streets of Pisco were still full of debris. Basic water, electrical, and communications services were not fully reconnected. More than 30,000 people were still living in shelters located in Chincha, Ica, and Pisco.

There was serious damage to the health services network. Fourteen facilities, including three hospitals, were destroyed and 112 health facilities were damaged. In Pisco, a city of more than 100,000 people, both public hospitals and the majority of health centers were destroyed, leaving 95% of the existing hospital beds out of service. Two months after the earthquake, health service was being provided from tents or temporary facilities, while the population waited for permanent reconstruction of the health service network. The disaster, not only in terms of physical damage to facilities, but the social impact on thousands of people who have had to be treated in unsafe conditions, will be felt for months to come.

Additional numbers show the magnitude of the impact. More than 88,000 houses were destroyed. While most public attention focused on damage in urban centers, a large number of rural communities were badly hit. Thousands of families moved immediately to improvised shelters in vacant lots near their homes, without water or public services. In the first two weeks of the emergency, 92 shelters were established, housing approximately 33,000 persons. Two months into the emergency the needs for latrines and drinking water supplies in shelters remained significant. The water supply and sanitation systems suffered severe damage, particularly in Pisco.

The earthquake tested Peru’s health system, both at the central level and in the most seriously impacted regions and provinces. Health personnel, along with local and national authorities, worked hard to assist the victims, with the support of international agencies. The wounded were treated rapidly. The epidemiologic surveillance network worked properly, and there were no records of important outbreaks. Even with the high number of local health workers who were directly affected by the earthquake, basic health care services were provided by professionals from other provinces and from other countries. Health authorities, especially at the local level, organized rapidly. The emergency operations centers for health functioned in Pisco and Chincha, and there were situation rooms where experts in health, water, and sanitation processed information as it was available. Various institutions put together a program to strengthen mental health services in areas affected by the earthquake.

Dispelling the Usual Disaster Myths

Myths about the after-effects of disasters flourish, despite the lessons of previous disasters. The confusion and anxiety of emergencies is a perfect environment for the circulation of fallacies, such as: “dead bodies cause epidemics;” “vaccinations need to be administered on a massive scale;” or “any kind of international assistance is needed and it is needed now.” It required concerted effort to get the media to suppress this misinformation, which can hinder humanitarian assistance. Another myth is that the emergency only lasts a few days or weeks. False. The earthquake in Peru showed once again that even though the cameras and broadcasters are gone from a disaster site, conditions are far from normal. Two months after the disaster thousands still need food, water and sanitation, and health care. Plans for rebuilding the damaged health centers are being analyzed. PAHO/WHO is using emergency funds to assist the Ministry of Health in the most critical areas: rebuilding health services; strengthening epidemiologic surveillance and disease prevention; providing for basic sanitation, hygiene and safe water; and coordinating post-emergency activities such as LSS/SUMA for inventory and control of supplies.

One of the most important lessons from this disaster is the need to reinforce disaster preparedness in the health sector, at the central level as well as in provinces and municipalities. Health services, schools, and water and sanitation services should be rebuilt to safer standards. Will the hospitals be safer in Pisco, in Chincha, or in Ica in future disasters?
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