Myths And Realities Of Natural Disasters

November 06, 1998

Washington, Nov. 6, 1998 --The recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch in Central America points up, according to experts at the Pan American Health Organization, the realities of natural disasters. Numerous myths abound about natural disasters, but the realities are different, according to Dr. Claude de Ville, Chief of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Program, which is working closely with the affected countries to organize relief efforts.

One popular myth, says Dr. de Ville, is that "Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed. But the reality is that the local population almost always covers immediate lifesaving needs. Only medical personnel with skills that are not available in the affected country may be needed." Central American countries are not requesting foreign medical volunteers. Other myths, PAHO says, and the corresponding realities are:

MYTH: Any kind of international assistance is needed, and it's needed now!
REALITY: A hasty response that is not based on an impartial evaluation only contributes to the chaos. It is better to wait until genuine needs have been assessed. PAHO has already made this evaluation and the needs are well established.

MYTH: Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster.
REALITY: Epidemics do not spontaneously occur after a disaster and dead bodies will not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of exotic diseases. The key to preventing disease is to improve sanitary conditions and educate the public. If conditions do not improve there could be a possibility of outbreaks.

MYTH: Disasters bring out the worst in human behavior.
REALITY: Although isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist, the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously. This has been the case in Central America.

MYTH: The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own survival.
REALITY: On the contrary, many find new strength during an emergency, as evidenced by the thousands of volunteers who spontaneously united to sift through mud in search of victims after the hurricane in Nicaragua and Honduras.

MYTH: Locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is the best alternative.
REALITY: It should be the last alternative. Many agencies use funds normally spent for tents to purchase building materials, tools, and other construction-related support in the affected country.

MYTH: Things are back to normal within a few weeks.
REALITY: The effects of this disaster, says Dr De Ville, will last a long time. Disaster-affected countries deplete much of their financial and material resources in the immediate post-impact phase. Successful relief programs gear their operations to the fact that international interest wanes as needs and shortages become more pressing.
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For further information contact:
Daniel Epstein, tel 202-974-3459, fax 202-974-3143, Office of Public Information, PAHO, http://www.paho.org.
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Pan American Health Organization

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