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Haiti earthquake: the emergency health response

13 January 2010 -- The severe earthquake that struck Haiti and the Dominican Republic has inflicted large-scale damage, including to hospitals and health facilities. In this episode we talk to WHO experts about the situation and the emergency health response.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You're listening to the first WHO podcast of 2010. My name is Veronica Riemer. The severe earthquake that struck Haiti and the Dominican Republic has inflicted large-scale damage, including to hospitals and health facilities. Large numbers of casualties are feared. In this episode, we talk to WHO experts about the situation and the emergency health response.

Dr Eric Laroche, Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises, tells us what capacity the country has to treat the survivors.

Dr Eric Laroche: The magnitude and complexity of the problem is huge. Two hospitals seem to have been hit but we know there are four hospitals in Port au Prince. Even if it is not structurally hit it is going to be functionally hit. I am saying this because people will not be in the hospital to take care of their patients because this happened at time when people had started going back home. You need to have a system that works, to have electricity, to have water, to have the proper medicine to treat injuries. There may be a functional disruption of the system that is going to be direct and indirect, indirect because of the fact that you are not equipped to face such a health problem, immense health problem.

Veronica Riemer: Dr Jean Luc Poncelet, Regional Adviser in the Americas for Health Action in Crises talks about the WHO response to the emergency.

Dr Jean Luc Poncelet: We mobilize a team of public health specialists and basically what they work with the government at assessing the extent of the damage. It means [identifying] what is the amplitude of needs that will not be able to be attended by the country. The big problem is that when you have so many people intervening from so many places speaking different languages, using different methodology etc you need to have a body coordinating assistance, so probably the most fundamental role of WHO is to convene NGOs, UN Partners, donor governments and neighbouring countries, and basically ask the questions: what are you ready to do; what kind of results did you bring in; are you really sure the results you are bringing in are qualified physicians, good medicines etc. If that is the case, why don't we share the work with the government so that people are rescued in the fastest way.

Veronica Reimer: Immediate health priorities are the search and rescue of survivors trapped underneath rubble, the treatment of people with major trauma injuries and preventing the infection of wounds. Dr David Meddings with the WHO department of Injuries and Violence Prevention tells us about what kind of injuries are typical following this type of disaster.

Dr David Meddings: People are most injured through what would seem the obvious mechanism which is their bodies being impacted by some other object, whether it's the interior of a car or part of a falling structure that falls on them, they sustain crush-type injuries. If those injuries involve the central part of the body, the head, the chest or the central abdominal structures, they can often be severe and result in fatality on the spot or afterwards in health care facilities. Extremity injuries involving arms and legs are much more common and often make a delayed presentation to health care facilities which complicates their care because they are often infected.

Veronica Riemer: Haiti is a country that has already suffered from years of humanitarian crisis and natural disasters, including a series of hurricanes that battered the country in 2008. We asked Dr Laroche if he thinks that the country's health system is going to cope.

Dr Eric Laroche: No, I am sure it is not going to cope and all the more reason to be a strong support to the government and to the society there. I have been in Haiti - it is so painful to see this happening to Haiti again and to the people of Haiti.. We have to do whatever is possible to restore the systems to rebuild and give a sense of hope to this population which has been hit by so many problems in the last few years. This is really something we have to address - the international community really has to put a lot of effort to rebuild and make all these social activities and social system working.

Veronica Riemer: That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.