For more than two decades, PAHO has worked with a small team of health professionals based in Caribbean countries to respond to disasters that exceed a country’s capacity to deal with the health consequences. However, in 2004 the impact and frequency of the hurricanes that struck that region exceeded the team’s limited response capacity. A lack of appropriate logistical and communication equipment also significantly reduced effectiveness. Unfortunately, this is not exclusively a Caribbean problem. Hurricane Mitch was a disaster of such overwhelming proportions in Central America, that PAHO mobilized 50 international experts from unaffected countries to deal with the health aspects.
Given these limitations, PAHO/WHO is expanding the capacity and flexibility of its Disaster Response Team. The selection of team members from among PAHO staff and experts regionwide is underway. Many of these experts have provided ad hoc assistance in areas such as damage and needs assessment, water quality monitoring, epidemiological surveillance and vector control.
Team members will meet in February to update technical and administrative procedures, clarify their functions and discuss cross-cutting issues such as the collection, analysis and management of post-disaster information. In future large-scale disasters, the support they provide will take many forms, including making an authoritative diagnosis of health needs for external assistance; providing technical advice on post-disaster health issues; establishing an emergency operations center and working with national authorities to coordinate the overall health response.
PAHO Readies a Regional Disaster Response Team
Many countries in the Americas can, and have already dealt with the health impact of small or medium-size emergency situations using local resources and staff. However, major sudden-impact disasters completely overwhelm the affected country’s capacity to respond. Worse yet, when a disaster occurs simultaneously in several countries, it limits the capacity of any one country to respond to its own needs, let alone to assist its neighbors. The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons brought to light once again this dilemma. And the problem is not exclusive to this Region. Even large countries can require external assistance from specialized public health experts, as was the case following the earthquake and tsunami in South Asia. More on page 2 about PAHO’s steps to solidify this regionwide response.