Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster

Phuket, Thailand
4 May 2005

Honourable Minister, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank His Excellency the Governor of Phuket for his warm welcome and thoughtful remarks. By meeting here we are reminded of the devastation that took place in the region just over four months ago. In doing so we also pay tribute to the spirit of the people of Thailand. Though they have suffered heavy losses of every kind from the Tsunami, they have risen above the disaster. Their courage and energetic recovery work are a source of hope and inspiration to us all.

Much has already been said and written about the Tsunami. The film we saw earlier reminds us that beyond the statistics and enormous technical challenges, this has been — and continues to be — a human tragedy of overwhelming magnitude.

We are very grateful to the Royal Thai Government's Ministry of Public Health for their generous co-hosting of this conference, and particularly to Professor Suchai, the Minister for Public Health, for his leadership. We would also like to thank the Government of Italy for their financial support to this conference.

The Tsunami that devastated the coastal areas around the Indian Ocean in December 2004 posed tremendous challenges — to the people directly affected, for their immediate survival; to the governments and the local authorities that had to cope with the crisis; and to the humanitarian agencies across the world who had to scramble at short notice. But just as the great wave came unexpectedly, so too did the world's response, at every level, from local to global. The volume of support and solidarity mobilized was unprecedented.

Destruction and loss of life stretched across six Asian countries, from Indonesia to the Maldives. Each situation had its own challenges and complexities that had to be factored in for an effective response by the health sector. The health of those who survived was the greatest and most immediate concern. Survivors and the nearest functioning local services immediately responded to ensure the safety and health of others.

Governments and other partner agencies needed to be able to monitor the health situation in affected areas, so they could tackle emerging problems quickly. Intense international support brought many aid and relief workers into the affected areas. As a result, good coordination and joint action were an urgent necessity. This is just as important now, as local communities, national authorities and private entities implement recovery programmes with the support of international partners.

Within days of the disaster, early warning systems for rapid detection, investigation and response to disease outbreaks were promptly established. They worked well. Relief agencies sought to help national authorities undertake rapid health assessments: partners in this vital task included the military forces of many nations. The assessments provided vital information on the health needs of affected populations and the extent of damage to infrastructure.

From the day after the Tsunami hit, the World Health Organization's Regional Office in Delhi, and WHO offices in the affected countries, established operations rooms that worked around the clock. Information was brought together and fed through to the Strategic Operations Centre in WHO Geneva to other parts of WHO, to the humanitarian community, and to our international partners. They received daily situation reports and numerous special briefings on the health threats faced by affected communities. A Regional Support Unit was set up in Bangkok to coordinate with the Joint Military Task Force, regional organizations, and donors.

Alongside governments, our partner agencies among the UN family and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the International Organization for Migration, nongovernmental organizations, communities, the private sector and the military have been highly prominent in humanitarian assistance activities.

The initial health response to the Tsunami was extensive and effective. The rapid establishment of a disease surveillance and response network, and the restoration of basic health services certainly reduced further loss of life. At the same time, there is no room for complacency. There is still room for improvement and many lessons are to be learnt.

In the response phase, various interventions and approaches were adopted, with varying degrees of success. The objective of this conference is to learn from this recent health sector experience of disaster response and early recovery. We want to obtain as much new clarity as we can, identifying success and failure, analysing strengths and weakness, and examining experiences and results. This gives us the basis from which to improve our capacity to safeguard the health of populations affected by crises, wherever these occur.

So, during the next three days I encourage you to be bold. Please focus on ways in which the response to health aspects of disasters and humanitarian crisis can be improved. In particular, please identify what national and international actors to do better.

You might suggest a different emphasis for health emergencies responses. You might propose better and more reliable arrangements for practical and timely action. You could well decide that greater emphasis must be given to mitigating the effects of disasters and reducing vulnerabilities. And you may want to suggest actions to be taken now to prepare for more effective response to future disasters wherever they occur.

Disaster response and reduction are part of the core work of WHO. Delegates at the forthcoming World Health Assembly - which starts in Geneva on 16 May - are due to consider this aspect of our work. The world's goals for health, development and peace cannot be achieved without a more coherent, consistent, and predictable set of arrangements, for an effective health sector response to crises.

Thank you all for coming to this conference. Let us make good use of this unique opportunity to improve the performance of all our organizations, and deepen our cooperation in our collective response to crises.

It is now my honour to turn to Professor Suchai, who will open the conference on behalf of the Royal Thai Government.

Thank you.