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Conflict, flooding pose health risks in the Philippines

7 September 2009 -- Battered by conflict and flooding, hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines have been displaced and face multiple health risks. In this episode we look at how WHO is working to respond to the enormous health challenges they face.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You’re listening to the WHO podcast, and my name is Veronica Riemer. In this episode, we focus on the plight of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have been displaced by conflict and flooding and look at how the World Health Organization is working to respond to the enormous health challenges they face.

Conflict has plagued the southern Philippines island of Mindanao for decades, but a recent upsurge in violence, coupled with unusually heavy monsoonal rainfall and flooding, has displaced upwards of 400 000 people. About 70% of the displaced are living in over 160 temporary camps. The remainder are staying with families or living in makeshift shelters built on roadsides or in vacant lots. Disease, inadequate health services and poor hygiene are hallmarks of this humanitarian crisis. Dr Gerardo Medina, who is the emergency and humanitarian action programme manager for WHO in the Philippines, explains.

Dr Gerardo Medina: Even before the conflict started there was already inadequate manpower, medicines and supplies in the health facilities in central Mindanao, especially in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao. And when these host communities suddenly have to take care of 60 000-plus families, you can imagine the strain in the resources.

For most of the people in the evacuation camps they would be lucky to be visited by a mobile medical team at least once a month. And even if these mobile medical teams come along they usually don't have that many supplies with them to be able to really adequately meet the needs of people there who need consultation.

Veronica Riemer: The World Health Organization is working closely with national and local health authorities, and multiple health partners, to improve and strengthen life-saving health services for the people affected by conflict in Mindanao.

On the 4th of September, WHO announced a new proposal to provide urgent essential health services to the displaced people. The plan, which requires over US$ 900 000 in funding, includes establishing a field sub-office in Mindanao, deploying permanent WHO health experts into the conflict-affected areas and procuring extra medicines.

WHO's representative to the Philippines, Dr Soe Nyunt-u, says this project is of vital importance to the health and well being of the many thousands of people displaced by violence and natural disaster.

Dr Soe Nyunt-u: One of the things we are worried about is the coming rainy season, which is also a flu season in the Philippines, as well as a potential outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus in settings of internationally displaced persons. Those are things we would like to be adequately prepared for. The bulk of the money will go to providing health services and for coordinating activities. We are also providing emergency health kits and supplies which are already in short supply as the conflict in Mindanao has been going on for more than one year now.

Veronica Riemer: On top of the usual host of health threats, such as acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, WHO has also identified the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus of 2009 as a key concern for the displaced.

Dr Gerardo Medina: The most common illnesses that we are seeing in the camps now are respiratory in nature: coughs, colds and fever. And with the presence of the H1N1 virus, what we are watching out for are cases that might suddenly turn serious.

WHO has been supporting the health department at the national and regional levels for the provinces and the municipalities in the regions to come up with mitigation response plans for H1N1. We are also providing technical assistance in terms of infection control in health facilities, especially in the health facilities within the conflict-affected areas. Advocacy, health promotion, personal hygiene, washing of hands, covering mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing: this efforts have been intensified even more, especially when the H1N1 reached the level of community transmission in the country. We now have documented cases in the conflict-affected areas.

Veronica Riemer: In dealing with this crisis, and other emergencies caused by conflicts and natural disasters, WHO's three layers of support at national, regional and global levels come together to deliver the best possible health response.

Jules Pieters is the coordinator of emergency response and operations with the Health Action in Crises cluster and WHO Headquarters. He explains that WHO plays a vital role in ensuring United Nations, non-governmental organization (NGO) and government health providers work together.

Jules Pieters: By many state actors and non-state actors, we are seen as a neutral entity. Usually health workers are seen as people who provide a service to the population. We are neutral and impartial. We do not make a difference between the aggressor and the people who are at the recipient end. It also means that WHO has a unique role, and that is the coordination of services. In many situations, we are a glue or lubricant between the various parties that play a role in a particular scenario, in the Philippines, in Mindanao, but also in other parts of the world to get the job done.

Veronica Riemer: If you would like to find out more about the Philippines crisis and WHO's work in conflict zones, there are links to related information on the transcript page of this podcast episode. Look for the link to the podcast on the home page of our web site, at www.who.int.

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics drop us a line. Our email address is podcast@who.int.

For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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