Humanitarian Health Action

Much accomplished - and far to go

By Shahzad Alam Khan

The once picturesque valleys of Muzzafarabad, Mansehra, Balakot, Bagh and Rawalakot are now scenes of destruction. "The devastation caused by the earthquake in Pakistan is bigger than Tsunami and Katrina. I don’t mean the number of deaths but the way earthquake has ruined the entire infrastructure, particularly the health infrastructure," WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Director Dr. Hussein A. Gezairy remarked while addressing a news conference.

Districts affected by the earthquake are the centre of relief activities, with UN agencies, national and multi-national NGOs and rescue teams urgently working to access and provide relief to victims of the calamity. Army helicopters are airlifting the injured from towns and from remote areas that otherwise have no road access. Even though an estimated 7,000 injured have been airlifted to Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore, many are still waiting for help.

With snow beginning to cover the mountains, the hope to pull out life from beneath the debris is diminishing. "Our top priority is to evacuate people from the remote areas, provide them best possible medical and surgical care and bury the dead bodies with respect," remarked Mohammad Nasir Khan, Federal Health Minister.

WHO, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, has deployed 34 health teams in inaccessible areas to provide medical care to the injured. Their responsibilities also include identification of severely injured patients to be airlifted to hospitals in towns.

Vaccination of all children under 15 years of age against measles has begun, and tetanus shots are being administered to all the injured. WHO has provided 27 New Emergency Health Kits and 14 Trauma Kits (one New Health Emergency Kit is sufficient for 10,000 people for three months, while a Trauma Kit can carry out 100 surgeries and post-operative dressings for eight days). Fifteen Surgical Kits have been locally procured and made available in existing health facilities located in the affected districts.

The Ministry of Health has reactivated the abandoned Abbas Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Muzzafarabad with the help of WHO. The 250-bed hospital is overflowing with injured. "Around 3,000 surgeries have been performed; of these, 70 were amputations. Thanks to WHO and other partners, there is no shortage of medicines and surgical equipment," said Dr. Jehanzeb Orakzair, Chief Health Emergency Coordinator from the Federal Ministry of Health.

Despite ongoing efforts, severe shortage of potable water, non-existent sanitation and lack of tents continue to multiply the miseries of earthquake survivors. "The real challenge lies in housing the patients," added Dr Orakzai. "Where should we send them? They have no place to go. What we are trying is to arrange as many tented wards or locations as possible. Water and shelter are top priorities at the moment."

One of the patients is 35-year old Lubna, both of whose legs were amputated at AIMS. "I have lost my family, my children, my home, and my limbs too. But my tragedy is still never-ending. I don’t know what will happen. I have no home to take refuge in," she worried.

Lubna’s husband Yunas, who was away from the family at the time of the earthquake, explained, "She, along with other family members, remained buried under tons of debris for about six days before I, assisted by a group of people, rescued her and others, and brought her here. We have lost our father and a son and now both of her legs. "I have no clue about the rest of our kids. They are there back home. I only brought Lubna here."

Thanks to the united efforts of both the national and international community, much has been accomplished to help survivors of the earthquake. It is equally clear that much remains to be done in the weeks and months to come. "Keep on doing the good job," encouraged Deputy Regional Director Dr. M.A. Jama while addressing the WHO staff. "However, our success indicator is how many lives we have saved and how many people we have reached."