The final balance of the four typhoons which devastated the Philippines between the end of November and the beginning of December has not yet been closed. In addition to over 1000 deaths, a similar number of injured and over 500 missing in the North Eastern region of the country, 3.6 million people are now threatened by the potential spread of infectious diseases which spread rapidly in humanitarian emergencies of this kind and are very hard to control.
“This has been a terrible tragedy the effects of which are still being felt at this time, just before the holiday period.” Explains Jean-Marc Olivé, a representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the Philippines. “For the WHO, the priority now is to protect the health of survivors and to restore public health services.”
Threat of epidemics. Those who survived now have to cope with severe shortages of clean water and adequate sanitary equipment to combat intestinal and respiratory infections whilst the floods have also increased the risk of a malaria epidemic. Nerissa N. Dominguez of the WHO reports for us on the current situation: “There are only a few cases of diarrhoea in the evacuation centres set up in the communities affected. There are a number of patients with respiratory infections and we expect the number to rise. For the time-being, however, we are not dealing with an epidemic of measles and pneumonia, diseases which are commonly found in evacuation centres. Some patients are suffering from cuts caused by falling trees and branches, and from the destruction of houses and infrastructure. Evacuation centres have been set up to care for children together with their families and the Department of Health is considering the urgent need for vaccines, particularly for measles.”
Beneath the water and the mud. Damage to health services has been estimated at the equivalent of 1.1 million US dollars. Supplies of medicines and basic equipment have been washed away or buried under the mud, and what is left is not enough to meet the increasing needs of the survivors, who are also at risk of malnutrition. A significant quantity of vaccines and other medicines were also lost as a result of the period of electrical blackout which interrupted their refrigerated conservation.
The risk of malaria. Following a request by the Department of Health, the WHO is preparing for possible outbreaks of malaria in Northern regions. Based on previous experience, it is calculated that there could be as many as 80,000 cases of infection in a population of 200,000 Philippinos in the region. The Department of Health’s malaria control program has collected supplies of insecticide, mosquito nets and other equipment. “These supplies include rapid diagnosis tests and medicines for treating malaria, but sufficient only for treating a population of 10,000 people. At this stage there is a shortage of tablets and injections of quinine for treating the most serious cases in hospital” concludes Dominguez.