Rescue Workers Rush to Help Pakistan's Earthquake Survivors

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, October 12, 2005 (ENS) - The United Nations Tuesday launched a $272 million flash appeal to help Pakistan recover from the 7.6 magnitude earthquake Saturday morning that damaged large areas across northern Pakistan and caused buildings in Islamabad to collapse. Survivors are increasingly desperate, many injured and isolated in remote areas, living in the open in the freezing mountains.

The quake was centered 90 kilometers (55 miles) north-northeast of Islamabad and was felt in India and Afghanistan.

Estimates of the death toll range from 40,000 to 23,000, one million others are in acute need of life-saving assistance, 2.5 million have been left homeless, and a total of four million people have been affected in some way.

Today at a press briefing in Islamabad, Director General Inter Services Public Relations Major General Shaukat Sultan said 23,000 deaths have been confirmed and the toll is expected to rise. There were 51,000 people injured in the quake, he said.

He said 430 Pakistan soldiers have died in the quake, while more than 700 others were injured.

Some 50,000 troops as well as a large number of volunteers are conducting relief and rescue operations, he said, adding that 850 rescue experts and 708 medical staff from various countries are working in the damaged areas.

The Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization offering medical help on the front lines of the relief effort, places the death toll at 40,000 and says that is the figure the relief NGOs are using to calculate how much assistance is needed.

As part of the UN flash appeal, the World Health Organization (WHO) is appealing for US$21.7 million to help meet the health needs of people whose homes and lives have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquake.

WHO's initial assessment shows that health facilities and health workers have suffered seriously in the earthquake. Help is needed for emergency surgery and other care for injured people, WHO said.

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Some of those injured in the earthquake are being cared for in makeshift tents, others remain in the open. (Photo courtesy WFP)
"Hospitals and other health facilities have collapsed or been badly damaged," said the world health body. "Many nurses, doctors and other health workers are thought to have been killed or injured."

The government of Pakistan has appealed for surgical and other medical supplies, as well as medicines and trained health workers to help in the immediate aid effort.

WHO is also working to put in place a disease surveillance and early warning system to ensure that any outbreaks of infectious disease are rapidly identified and can be responded to rapidly.

The provision of safe food and water is an urgent priority, to prevent the emergence and spread of diarrhoeal diseases among the people affected. Antibiotics will also be essential to treat pneumonia - another major health risk. Continued treatment for tuberculosis is also critical in order to avoid transmission of the disease.

Measles is known to be endemic in the affected area. WHO, together with the Ministry of Health and UNICEF, is appealing for funds to provide both emergency and routine immunization to protect children from this and other fatal or debilitating diseases.

Mental health services are also essential for people who have been through the extreme trauma of this earthquake and aftershocks.

On Sunday, the day after the earthquake struck, Mercy Corps officers Nadeem Ahmed Malik and Dr. Arif Noor were dispatched to the region to conduct a needs assessment. Finding the roads impassable, they walked into Balakot, a flattened city near the epicenter. They determined the needs to be immediate medical care, water, ready-to-eat meals and shelter.

Mercy Corps initially planned to stage its response from Balakot. But as relief supplies began to trickle in to the region, it became clear that critical needs in outlying areas were going unaddressed.

Mercy Corps is now staging relief operations from the Seraan Valley, east of Balakot. It is an area that has received almost no assistance; no other NGOs are working there.

On Tuesday, a Mercy Corps medical team delivered supplies and treated 150 patients in Seraan Valley. This was done without the benefit of medical facilities; patients were treated where they lay. Some were treated for secondary infections; others were stabilized and evacuated to hospitals in nearby Mansehra for further care.

By today, Mercy Corps will have established a medical clinic in the valley, staffed by at least four physicians, working out of tents. The UN has designated Mercy Corps a leader in medical response for the region.

Mercy Corps has arranged for a 20 truck convoy to leave Islamabad Thursday morning, carrying 80 tons of food aid to the Seraan Valley. This food aid is enough to feed 4,000 people for one week.

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Raza is being treated in Islamabad's largest hospital, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. He waited 24 hours in the freezing rain before being brought to the hospital by relatives. (Photo by Zaidi courtesy UNICEF)
UNICEF Health Officer Dr. Tamur Mueenuddin said he witnessed terrible injuries sustained by children in the city of Mansehra, not far from the epicentre of the earthquake - children with twisted limbs and abdominal lacerations.

"There are 2000 children needing operations there," he said. They're being taken in batches of 200 down to the [local] hospital where five medical teams are working round the clock."

The WHO request for funds is part of United Nations Flash Appeal for emergency relief and rehabilitation.

A United Nations food convoy that left Islamabad at dawn today has reached the city of Abbottabad at the start of an emergency effort to feed 400,000 earthquake survivors, many of whom have been without food or shelter since the earthquake hit.

"The situation is increasingly desperate," said UN World Food Programme (WFP) country representative German Valdivia. "Many areas have no safe water or electricity and food supplies are extremely limited, especially as most people have no means to cook. They are living out in the open in the mountains – and it is extremely cold."

When the trucks with 39 metric tons of high energy biscuits arrived in Abbottabad, 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of the quake’s epicentre, WFP immediately began distribution with the help of International Rescue Committee, a non-profit, non-sectarian voluntary agency.

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World Food Programme relief trucks carrying high energy biscuits near Abbotabad. (Photo courtesy WFP)
A second convoy, carrying a further 40 tons, left later today for Muzaffarabad, the city hardest hit by the quake, even though roads to the area are still blocked.

"We will be providing one million people with ready-to-eat food over the next month," said Valdivia.

The first two of 10 helicopters to assist the relief operation are due to arrive today, enabling rescue and aid workers to reach the most remote areas which have been cut off by landslides. Relief efforts are being further hampered by heavy rain, bringing the danger of more damage to roads and bridges.

At UN Headquarters in New York, Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, chief of staff to UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, told a news briefing in New York that, "A generous response to this appeal will be critical to help people in need."

Speaking within hours of the launch, he said initial indications from donors amounted to around $70 million.

"The situation is very, very critical, very severe, 60 to 70 per cent of all the housing, of accommodation has been destroyed," Strohmeyer said, citing a report Tuesday from a disaster team of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, one of the first to get into the main city of Muzaffarabad by helicopter.

"The rest of the city is uninhabitable. We have heavy rain in the area, mudslides that make access to even those in need very, very difficult. General access to the area is incredibly difficult. We only have one small road open for light vehicles. There is no road that would allow heavy truck traffic into the area," Strohmeyer said.

"We are dependent at the moment on heavy lifting logistics equipment, helicopters," he said. "Airlifting logistics capacity at the moment is critical life-saving assistance and is needed."

Still, 10 trucks loaded with 350 tents, volunteers and relief goods from Pakistan's Ministry of Youth Affairs left for Muzaffarabad today to set up a tent city to provide shelter to quake victims.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz Wednesday visited Muzaffarabad today to review the progress of relief work. "Relief measures are improving, more areas are opening up, but much work has to be done in Neelum Valley, while the Jhelum valley will open by tomorrow," the Prime Minister told reporters at Muzaffarabad stadium.

Although it collapsed in the earthquake, Muzaffarabad stadium is serving as a field hospital, as the city's main hospital also was shattered by the quake. The worst injured are being transported to hospitals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Today is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. In New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "The lesson we must draw is encapsulated in the theme of this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction: Invest to prevent disaster. We cannot stop natural calamities, but we can and must better equip individuals and communities to withstand them."

Director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Director Salvano Briceno said the quake proves again how important it is to build safe hospitals and schools in disaster prone areas. Many schools were damaged during the earthquake and children were buried alive under the rubble.

"Reinforcing buildings in disaster-prone areas is essential. Losing hospitals becomes a double disaster if they are not built to withstand earthquakes: a disaster in that they are destroyed, but also that their equipment and their staff are no longer available to rescue other victims," Briceno said.

"The destruction of schools, as has tragically happened last Saturday, means the loss of new generations," he said. "New constructions need to be built safe, and old ones need to be systematically reinforced or retrofitted to avoid future disasters."