Do's And Don'ts After Natural Disasters

November 06, 1998

Washington, Nov. 6, 1998-- The thousands of deaths and heavy damages caused in Central America by Hurricane Mitch are testimony that Latin America and the Caribbean are vulnerable to a wide variety of natural and manmade disasters, according to experts at the Pan American Health Organization. They also highlight a series of do's and don'ts after disasters that can affect the way countries recover.

One little-known effect of these disasters is the generous outpouring of aid, which can greatly help a disaster-stricken country if it meets real needs, according to Dr. Hugo Prado, regional advisor for PAHO's Office of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief. But aid can just as quickly become a burden if it has not been requested or reflects mistaken perceptions of what the real needs are, Dr. Prado said.

Thanks to modern communications, word of these tragedies reaches the international community within minutes, and in some cases in just hours relief is on its way. But, PAHO experts point out, the countries of the Americas have a relatively high level of health disaster preparedness and a sophisticated health infrastructure, enabling them to deal with the immediate medical needs in the aftermath of a disaster.

However, once a disaster strikes, the high cost of relief operations may drain, in a matter of days, the resources normally allotted for a one-year period for primary health care and development programs. This, added to the fact that many countries in this Region have seen their standard of living and level of development decline dramatically, further reduces their capacity to restore normal services and recover from natural disasters.

To avoid past mistakes and make international health relief assistance truly effective, Dr. Claude de Ville, chief of the disaster preparedness program at the Pan American Health Organization, suggests the following:

It is unlikely that medical personnel will be required from abroad, given the capacity of Latin America and the Caribbean to mobilize health resources to respond to the immediate needs of disaster victims. In recent disasters local health personnel treated all injuries within the first days.

The need for search and rescue, life-saving first aid and other immediate medical procedures is short-lived. International assistance usually arrives too late to meet short-term needs. Special caution is necessary when considering international assistance that is useless once the acute emergency phase has passed. This type of assistance includes personnel, specialized rescue equipment, mobile hospitals, and perishable items.

International donors should not compete to meet the most visible needs of an affected country. The quality and appropriateness of the assistance is more important than its size, monetary value or the speed with which it arrives.

Emergency assistance should complement, not duplicate, efforts taken by the affected country. Some duplication is unavoidable as many countries and agencies worldwide hasten to meet the same needs, real or presumed. However, this need not have negative consequences if the assistance can be used later for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Don't overreact to media reports for urgent immediate international assistance. Despite the tragic images we are shown, get the overall picture and wait until requests for aid have been formally issued.

After a disaster, Dr. Prado says donors should: What potential donors should NOT do, PAHO experts say, is: Donors should consult further about donations of items such as:
For further information contact: Daniel Epstein, tel 202-974-3459, fax 202-974-3143, Office of Public Information, PAHO.

Pan American Health Organization

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