Nov. 9, 1998 Washington, Nov. 6, 1998-- Safe water, specific medicines, insecticides and waste disposal are the highest priority needs in the Central American countries affected by Hurricane Mitch, say Pan American Health Organization disaster experts.
Contrary to popular belief, epidemics and plagues don't usually follow natural disasters, according to experts at PAHO, which is working with the health sector in Honduras, Nicaragua, and other Central American countries to reduce the risk of outbreaks that could arise as a result of Mitch.
Dr. Hugo Prado, of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Program, says "after a disaster such as Hurricane Mitch, outbreaks and epidemics are not automatic. Public health problems are a consequence of other issues, such as the destruction or disruption of water supplies."
PAHO is coordinating requests from countries affected by the disaster. Honduras and Nicaragua have reported that they need specific medicines, insecticides and equipment for mosquito control, waste disposal systems, health education and communication assistance, hospital equipment, and materials for water purification including granular hypochloride, 5-gallon plastic water jugs, and equipment to measure residual chlorine. Dr. Prado emphasized that PAHO does not support indiscriminate sending of medicines, which can clog the supply delivery system.
Without improvements in sanitary conditions, health problems most likely to initially occur are diarrheal diseases, as a consequence of the use of unsafe water, Dr. Prado emphasized. Later on, the confinement of a large number of people in crowded shelters or in the homes of family and friends can generate problems such as diarrheal diseases because of unsafe water or food, as well as skin rashes, conjunctivitis, and other problems related to crowding. Leptospirosis, a disease transmitted by the urine or feces of rodents, can be a problem in flooded areas as well, he said. A health threat that can develop later on is the uncontrolled proliferation of vectors like the mosquitoes that can transmit diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and others.
According to Dr. Prado, the response of the health sector to a disaster such as the one that affected Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize can usually be described in 3 steps. The first is the immediate life-saving first aid to the people hurt in the disaster. The second step, and the most important one, is to provide safe water to as much of the population as possible, to reduce the risk of disease transmission. The last step, which can only be attained in the long run, is to put the health system of the country back on its feet, repairing damages in hospitals, clinics, and health centers, and ensuring that the basic sanitation infrastructure is repaired.
PAHO is working with the Central American countries most affected by Hurricane Mitch to coordinate foreign health assistance. This coordination effort is necessary, according to Dr. Prado, to ensure that external aid meets the real needs of the countries. PAHO, which is also the regional office for the Americas of the World Health Organization, issued an emergency appeal for immediate aid to the health sector in Central America after Hurricane Mitch, based on requests from the countries and its own evaluations. The U.S. and Sweden have already responded with $500,000 each in immediate aid, and Canada has given $250,000 and is sending a C-130 transport plane with supplies to Honduras and El Salvador today. Across Central America and in southern Mexico, 10,001 people were dead, 14,202 were missing and 2.78 million were homeless, according to figures.
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