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Press Briefing by Dr. Jon Andrus, Deputy Director, Pan American Health Organization

January 14, 2010

We are still dealing with a rapidly evolving disaster. I will try to let you know what we know right now and continue to update you as the picture becomes clearer.

The extreme magnitude of damage caused by Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti is making it extremely difficult for us to accurately assess how many people have been killed and injured. Homes have collapsed, buildings are in rubble, and many roads are blocked, others are difficult to navigate, and communication remains incredibly difficult.

 No confirmed number of dead or wounded has been provided. Our efforts must be on the living and to rescue as many alive people as possible.

What I am personally finding is that virtually every person that I talk to has some story of a friend, friend of a friend, or indeed a family member that has some link or has been somehow affected by the crisis on the ground in Haiti.

It should serve to remind us that we are talking about people, we are talking about families and their children, not just numbers.

At least 8 hospitals and other health facilities have been substantially damaged or destroyed in Haiti.

The airport is now functioning and receiving planes with aid and relief teams. Because of the damage, we know that night landings are being restricted.

We know that there is a field hospital functioning at the airport and an Argentine military hospital that is also functioning. This hospital has been opened for public use and is providing services as we speak. Countries, such as Chile are providing additional medical staff to support the work of this hospital.

We know that many other hospitals that are still functioning are crowded with patients in need of a wide range of care, particularly for trauma injuries.

At this phase of the crisis, we have 2 major concerns: searching and rescuing trapped victims who may still be alive, and to that end several teams and missions are working. Other teams are arriving as we speak.

Our other major concern right now is the coordination of the health response, basically how we can best use the wide range of life-saving resources and skills coming into Haiti.

Before this briefing, our Director, Dr. Mirta Roses, coordinated a call with all countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. What countries have already done and what they plan to do is extraordinary. Their response is really an exemplary example of regional solidarity.

Examples include: Chile sending a medical team to support an Argentine military hospital already operating on the ground; Ecuador, Peru, and several others sending medical supplies; Cuba sending medical teams; Brazil sending plane loads of equipment, medical supplies and staff; Jamaica is now receiving the overflow of patients into its nation's hospitals and also sending several medical staff by its Coast Guard directly to Haiti; Venezuela has sent plane loads of staff and fuel; and certainly the response from the US and Canada has been extraordinary, and the list goes on and on.

I need to also mention that these efforts are not just local. Countries from Europe (UK and France, and Spain in particular) and as far away as China are sending support.

Many representatives of smaller aid missions, and even individuals, have contacted us offering to volunteer, and many of them offer incredibly valuable skills. But right now the situation is so difficult on the ground in Haiti that all outside aid teams must be completely self-sufficient.

Aid teams must be able to meet all their own personal needs for water, food, and shelter, as well as having their own equipment and facilities to provide their services.

But we are compiling a roster of people who have offered their skills, to have them available in the recovery effort, particularly when we have more data from the needs assessment currently taking place on the ground.

We also have guidelines on how to be a good donor partner, or in other words a humanitarian. These guidelines are available on PAHO's website at

The immediate priorities are now

  • Search and rescue of survivors trapped underneath rubble; 
  • Treatment of people with major trauma injuries; 
  • Preventing the infection of wounds; 
  • Provision of clean water and sanitation; and 
  • Control of communicable diseases, such as diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections.
Coordination is the key role that PAHO/WHO can play. PAHO/WHO is working with the Haitian government, United Nations agencies and humanitarian partners to respond to the emergency and to assess specific health needs.

Our PAHO Emergency Operations Center is operating as a clearinghouse for information. We are conducting daily global conference calls with WHO headquarters in Geneva and with all its Global Health Cluster partners to best coordinate the response to the emergency.

PAHO/WHO has deployed a 12-member team of health and logistics experts. They include specialists in mass casualty management, coordination of emergency health response and the management of dead bodies.

Data collected by PAHO/WHO is being disseminated to other humanitarian aid providers.

As I mentioned earlier, many PAHO/WHO partners are already operating in the affected areas and are sending additional support.

As I described in coordination with PAHO, neighboring countries in the region are already in the process of organizing humanitarian response by sending aid missions and search and rescue teams.

PAHO is a technical agency and as such provides technical support in disaster management. Provision of emergency health services is critical.

Another example in a crisis like this, will be the management of dead bodies. This needs to be done with highest regards to families wishes and sensitivities. We need to stress again that the presence of dead bodies does not itself pose a substantial public health risk.

We have received reports that people are placing bodies on sheets in the streets. There are thousands.

It has been decided with the chief of the U.N. forces that the UN  MINUSTAH will gather these bodies and take them to a central place.

PAHO/WHO has issued guidelines on the management and identification of dead bodies and is providing these guidelines to health authorities and partners in the country.

As I said yesterday, It is important to draw on the lessons we have learned over the decades in responding to disasters in the Americas and around the world.

Key to this will be a long term strategy and this includes the critical importance of hospitals in the aftermath of a disaster. It is not inevitable that hospitals also become victims of disasters.

We know that hospitals can be constructed and supplied so they can withstand the impact of future disasters and remain functional to provide their essential services to survivors.

The additional cost of making hospitals disaster-safe is marginal, and basically is negligible in comparison with the cost of a failed hospital.

We hope donor countries and agencies will place high priority on rebuilding Haiti's health facilities to be disaster safe in the future. The short term response must be grounded in a long term vision. With that note I would like to end and thank you for your time and attention.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2010 06:48

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