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WHO's critical contribution in the humanitarian health response

22 January 2010 -- Haiti's earthquake ranks among the most devastating and logistically challenging in recent history. Before the earthquake, Haiti already suffered from high rates of maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS and malnutrition. Listen to what WHO and others are doing for the huge numbers of people needing surgery and other medical treatment.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You're listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Veronica Riemer. Ten days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we look at we look at WHO's critical contribution in the humanitarian health response.

Director-General Dr Margaret Chan: This disaster ranks among the most devastating and logistically challenging in recent history. We are seeing the difficulties that arise when disaster strikes an already disastrous public health situation.

Veronica Riemer: That was WHO's Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. Before the earthquake, Haiti already suffered from high rates of maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS and malnutrition. Today, medical teams are struggling with the huge numbers of people needing surgery and other medical treatment. Many will die without urgent assistance.

Director-General Dr Margaret Chan: The almost unbelievable damage to infrastructure extends to hospitals and health centres. A WHO/PAHO team of specialists is on the ground and is spearheading the health response to this earthquake. The first priorities are to assess the nature and magnitude of emergency health needs, to treat the injured, to recover bodies, and to set up surveillance for infectious diseases. Offers of help continue to pour in. But aid must closely match urgent health needs and be tightly coordinated. This is part of WHO’s job. We have every reason to be concerned about the health of survivors.

Veronica Riemer: On the ground, communication and transportation remain difficult and the bare necessities, such as food, water, and fuel, are scarce. Hundreds of buildings, including hospitals and clinics, have been destroyed and major road networks are damaged. Dr Mirta Roses, WHO's Regional Director for the Americas said there are enormous difficulties in identifying open spaces for field hospitals and temporary shelters as well as managing the supply and distribution of the massive amounts of aid pouring into the country.

Dr Mirta Roses: We have sent an additional team of 20 health, logistics and communications experts to coordinate the health response to the disaster and to provide support in mass casualty management, management of dead bodies and other immediate emergency needs. This major disaster requires an exceptional response. We are mobilizing all levels (all country and regional offices as well as Headquarters) to meet the overwhelming challenges of bringing humanitarian assistance to Haiti, one of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world.

Veronica Riemer: Dr Henriette Chamouillet, WHO Representative in Haiti was meeting with government officials and health partners when the quake struck. She told us that all WHO staff were safe and able to work. The conditions in organizing and delivering life saving health care remain extremely challenging:

Dr Henriette Chamouillet: It is difficult to do coordination under these conditions but I don't think we have done so badly until now. We have been able to provide all the medicines, health equipment, health items that we are asked to deliver.

Veronica Riemer: She went on to explain the main health concern today:

Dr Henriette Chamouillet: The first health problem is related to orthopaedia, fractures, and we need a lot of orthopaedic surgeons, a lot of material, a lot of drugs, and we are bringing all of that and so far it is OK but it might take days or even weeks before all these patients can be operated.

Veronica Riemer: More than a week after the quake struck, great suffering continues in Haiti. But thousands of humanitarians from around the world are there working non- stop to deliver healthcare services and save lives.

That's all for episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you would like further information about the WHO response in Haiti, please see the links on the transcript page of this podcast. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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