Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate South Asia

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Health systems are being rapidly strengthened across all tsunami-affected countries. Nutrition needs are being assessed and met. As many survivors try to return to their homes, the fluidity of internally displaced people makes the delivery of humanitarian assistance a challenge.

Major earthquakes off the northern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia produced a devastating tsunami in late December that affected 12 countries in south Asia and as far away as Africa. Hardest hit were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and Thailand. From the outset, the World Health Organization supported the needs of country offices and Ministries of Health in disease surveillance; provided technical advice on best practices in outbreak situations and how to reduce environmental and public health risks; offered guidelines on the management of cadavers, psychosocial needs and protection of vulnerable groups; mobilized resources and supplies such as essential drugs and water purification tablets/chlorine; and coordinated and managed information requests for technical issues and public and media information. The WHO Health Action in Crisis Network was activated immediately following the news of the disaster. WHO Headquarters in Geneva and the WHO South East Asia Regional Office (SEARO) in New Delhi established 24-hour Operations Crisis Centers with a senior level task force to support the emergency needs of the affected countries. WHO staff from all over the world were mobilized to support the Crisis Center in SEARO and country offices in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia.

As the organization leading the coordinated public health relief effort, WHO priorities included efforts to prevent communicable disease outbreaks, particularly of water-borne diseases. The focus was on ensuring that basic needs of displaced populations in affected areas, such as adequate supplies of safe water, strong sanitation/hygiene infrastructure and basic medical supplies, were met. WHO also focused on setting up emergency disease surveillance and early warning systems, mass vaccination campaigns to protect hundreds of thousands of children against measles, providing technical guidelines and using emergency teams at field level, and activities aimed at reducing vulnerability of women and children and rebuilding the health system.

SEARO’s web site has a wealth of up-to-date information, including situation reports, country information, comprehensive guidelines for health emergencies, press releases and more. The site features an excellent tsunami photo library and allows you to subscribe to an e-mail newsletter on tsunami health that offers news and updates of WHO activities in the affected countries. Visit http://w3.whosea.org/index.htm for complete and current coverage of the response to this disaster. WHO’s headquarters site features press releases, assessment reports and information on WHO’s strategy and appeals (www.who.int/hac).

 

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