Press Release WHO/80
4 November 1998
DIRECTOR-GENERAL, AFFECTED COUNTRIES CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE TO HURRICANE MITCH
(Geneva) Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr George Alleyne, its Regional Director for the Americas (WHO/AMRO), and representatives of the five central American countries devastated by Hurricane Mitch today called for international support in addressing both immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term restructuring of the health sector.
Mitch, this century's worst cylconic storm in the Atlantic Basin, has claimed at least 3 000 lives in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Close to 3 000 people are missing, at least three quarters of a million people have been displaced and upwards of 3.3 million affected.
Hurricane Mitch has interrupted public health programmes, contaminated drinking water, undermined sanitation conditions and, in its wake, brings the potential for an increase in disease-bearing mosquitoes. These factors are a recipe for increasing the transmission of communicable diseases and an international response is urgently needed if the health of the region's people is not to deteriorate rapidly, WHO warned. Moreover, the hurricane has devastated the health infrastructure and the remaining health facilities may not be able to attend to a drastically increased number of patients.
"Together, the Governments of Canada, Sweden and the United States have already donated US$1.3 million to relief efforts, but more will be needed to ensure reconstruction of health systems in the longer term," emphasized Dr Brundtland. "We are grateful for the large response which the appeal launched by WHO/AMRO has already elicited, but we need to extend this appeal worldwide and ask donors to respond not only to emergency humanitarian needs, but also to think about the medium term."
Today, WHO launched an appeal for US$10 million for emergency health aid to the region, and the amount will be revised upwards as new needs emerge. Funds were urgently needed for emergency repairs to hospitals and health centres affected by the hurricane, surveillance systems to detect diseases such as dengue fever, diarrhoea, cholera and others, and to purchase health supplies, insecticides, water containers, and chlorine.
"This is a big disaster. We never thought it was going to be like this," said His Excellency Alvaro Montenegro, Nicaraguan Ambassador in Geneva. "The country's infrastructure, even in the capital, Managua, has been destroyed."
"The north, east, south and west of the country have been affected. Infrastructure, especially bridges, has been destroyed. We need more help from WHO and would like the Organization to be present in Honduras," said Ms Fabiola Licona from the Honduran Mission in Geneva.
Ambassadors from Guatemala and El Salvador, Their Excellencies Luis Alberto Padilla and Victor Manuel Lagos Pizzati, respectively, also related how their countries had been hit by the hurricane. "We may be less affected than Nicaragua and Honduras, but our infrastructure is destroyed all over," confirmed Ambassador Padilla.
"WHO/AMRO has been working with our Health and Foreign Ministries to develop strategies for emergency preparedness. Had it not been for WHO/AMRO's work, the damage inflicted by the hurricane would have been much greater," said Ambassador Pizzati.
The national health authorities of the five countries, assisted by WHO/AMRO's Emergency Relief and Disaster Preparedness Programme, conducted rapid health assessment missions in the affected areas within 48 hours after the hurricane struck. The assessment teams recommended that five activities had to be urgently implemented in a region where one-quarter of the population is displaced and a third has been cut off. These activities were the implementation of an early epidemic warning and response system, a minimum of infrastructure repairs in key hospital and primary health care facilities, vector control measures, water and sanitation measures, and the local purchase of medical supplies.
"WHO/AMRO has been requested to assume the coordination of disaster response and mitigation actions in the health sector, and is enlisting the support of epidemiologists and vector control experts and implementing the SUMA (Supply Management Programme) emergency supply management system to ensure smooth delivery of materials and distribution to affected areas," said Dr Alleyne."For the system to work smoothly, it was important that donors check first and only ship those materials which national officials themselves say they needed."
In responding to this crisis, WHO is working closely with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
For further information, journalists can contact Gregory Hartl, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 44 58. Fax (41 22) 791 48 58. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page http://www.who.int