World Health Organization Asked to Lead Future Disaster Response

PHUKET, Thailand, May 9, 2005 (ENS) - The world needs a network of experts and clear procedures to deal with mass fatalities and psychological trauma to improve the response to disasters such as the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that claimed more than 200,000 lives in 11 Indian Ocean countries, a international conference of health professionals and the military recommends.

More than 400 health practitioners from 130 countries, organizations and the military wound up a conference Friday in Phuket by recommending that the World Health Organization, the health arm of the United Nations, should play a stronger role in disasters – directing volunteer doctors and nurses, distributing donated equipment and medicines and monitoring the health of affected communities.

The conference found that at times of disaster, uncoordinated needs assessments are counterproductive, and that insufficient support is given to women's health. Clear roles, responsibilities and operating procedures need to be worked out so that military and civilian organizations can work together on disaster responses, delegates decided.


Dr. David Nabarro is the World Health Organization's leader for crisis response. (Photo courtesy WHO)
Dr. David Nabarro, special representative of the WHO Director-General for health action in crises, said, “The tsunami has shown that countries can prevent disease outbreaks but that the world must be prepared to deal more effectively with psychological trauma, the health needs of women, and mass fatalities. By applying what we have learned, we can be better prepared. When disaster strikes, more lives will be saved and affected communities will recover more rapidly.”

Presented by the World Health Organization with financial support from the Italian and Thai governments, the conference looked at lessons learned in the days and weeks after the giant waves generated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the northwest coast of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. In addition to the more than 200,000 fatalities, at least five million people were displaced from their homes, and entire regions were reduced to rubble.

A pool of forensic pathologists should be established to deal with mass fatalities and dead bodies in future disasters, delegates recommended. Experts should work to agreed standards and be made available for large scale emergencies.

In Thailand alone, the government found itself coordinating forensic experts from around 30 countries using several different standards for victim identification - ranging from Polaroid photos to DNA testing. The World Health Organization has now been asked to take a lead on harmonizing techniques and identifying experts to provide this assistance.


Surviviors attempt to identify the dead in Indonesia' Aceh province immediately after the tsunami. (Photo courtesy Jakarta Indymedia)
Delegates recommended that there be a greater focus on the health threats faced by women. In disasters, they said, women are particularly vulnerable and their maternal, obstetric and gynecological services have to be given special priority.

After the tsunami, some communities were overwhelmed by multiple assessment teams giving them the same health checks day after day. Eventually they refused to co-operate and this hampered the distribution of relief. To avoid this situation, needs assessments should be unified to stop duplication, delegates said.

In the tsunami response, national militaries took a leading role in the first few weeks of the emergency. In addition, over 30 militaries from around the world provided logistical and communications assistance. While recognizing the valuable services provided by these military organizations, delegates called on WHO to take the lead on procedures for health assessments and response.

Delegates recommended that simplified procedures be agreed to deal with psychological trauma and mental ill health. Entire communities were devastated by the tsunami. WHO estimates that around 80 percent of psychosocial needs were addressed in the community, but delegates found that outside experts were needed to provide essential help. Better guidance is needed to improve the treatment of those suffering from psychological trauma and other forms of mental illness, they suggested.

Recommendations will be taken to the World Health Assembly opening May 16 in Geneva, where the world’s health ministers make decisions on how to respond to global health needs.