Humanitarian Health Action

Japan: monitoring and providing guidance

Monthly Highlights - March 2011


On 11 March, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the north east coast of Honshu. The quake triggered a tsunami that devastated the coastal areas of Tohoku and southern Hokkaido. The compounded effects of the earthquake and the tsunami inflicted serious damage to nuclear power plants, particularly the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

According to official figures more than 27 000 persons are reported dead or missing and more than 163 500 persons have been evacuated from the areas affected by the tsunami and the areas around the affected reactors (figures from 5 April).

Health status

The local medical associations have reported on the limited capacity of the health facilities (as of 25 March). Out of 231 hospitals and clinics in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefecture, 121 (52%) are unable to accept new patients, while 33 (14%) are unable to accept any patients due to lack of resources, including staff.

There have been sporadic cases of influenza but no large outbreaks. Cold temperatures continue and cases of hypothermia have been reported, particularly among the elderly population in the evacuation centres. The Japan Medical Association started to ship insulin, but poor road conditions and lack of petrol are hindering the delivery of supplies. Many evacuees complain of symptoms related to acute stress such as insomnia, flash backs, survivors guilt and digestive symptoms.


Due to potential radiation exposure, all people within a 20-km radius have been evacuated. All people living within a 20-30 km radius, have been advised to voluntarily evacuate.

National response

The National Emergency Management Committee, led by the Prime Minister, has been established to oversee and coordinate all response activities. A state of emergency has been declared. All prefectures have also activated local government responses.

WHO response

WHO has not been asked for assistance on the ground but has offered assistance and remains on stand-by. All levels of WHO have been mobilized to provide support to the emergency. The WHO Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO) in Manila immediately activated its event management group to monitor the situation, coordinate the response and lend support to Japan. With WHO Kobe Centre, the group is in close and constant communication with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and WHO offices in countries that were under tsunami alert.

In headquarters, the Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC) was activated and the Cluster for Health Security and Environment (HSE) is leading the response. Upon request, HQ/HAC made available three staff to support operation in the SHOC.

WHO is in close contact with its global network of health experts specialized in nuclear-related disasters (REMPAN). On 29 March WHO sent a liaison to the IAEA in Vienna and is monitoring the situation in close communication with the IAEA and IACRNA (Inter-Agency Committee for Response to Nuclear Accidents).

Questions and answers on potassium iodine food safety, water, trade and travel advice and health risks are being regularly updated and posted on the HQ and WPRO WHO web sites.

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