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Challenges still remain after the floods in Pakistan

24 September 2010 -- The floods in Pakistan have had an enormous consequences for the health of millions of people. They have also impacted the ability to deliver emergency and routine health care across the country.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: In this edition of the WHO podcast, we look at the health situation in Pakistan as a result of the ongoing flood crisis.

The floods in Pakistan have had an enormous consequences for the health of millions of people. They have also impacted the ability to deliver emergency and routine health care across the country.

The World Health Organization has responded in several ways, including the delivery of medicines to treat 4.5 million people and coordinating the humanitarian health sector response.

WHO's Representative to Pakistan, Dr Guido Sabatinelli, explains what the situation in Pakistan is like today.

Dr Guido Sabatinelli: In the north it is almost back to normality with the exception of the fact that there remains the great destruction of the infrastructure and the houses. In the Punjab the population has started to be back, to their place of origin; in Sindh still we have a large part of the population that is still dealing with the floods with the presence of water and probably that will last for several months.

Veronica Riemer: We asked Dr Sabatinelli about some of the most critical health problems people are currently facing in Pakistan.

Dr Guido Sabatinelli: The water-borne diseases, especially the diarrhoea, are the most critical now because of the lack of potable water and appropriate sanitation for a large part of the population. Only 8% of the population has access to potable water and the same for the sanitation. So this is creating the conditions for the spread of diarrhoeal diseases, shigellosis and also cholera that is endemic in this area.

Veronica Riemer: Dr Hussein Gezairy, Regional Director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean office has recently visited areas in southern Punjab, meeting with senior health officials and assessing the health facilities. He describes some of the further health challenges being faced.

Dr Hussein Gezairy: There are many millions without shelter, many millions who will need food. The real problem is what is the possibility of having epidemics after that because safe drinking water is not available now, and all the health system has been affected one way or another.

Veronica Riemer: WHO has been working with more than 100 partners to help Pakistan's government deliver life-saving health care to those affected.

As part of this, humanitarian partners from different sectors are working together to respond to the multiple, intertwined health threats and their causes, including poor sanitation and hygiene, and inadequate supplies of food. Dr Sabatinelli explains:

Dr Guido Sabatinelli: Sanitation still is very poor and we are extremely concerned for the situation in the Sindh where there are still IDP camps and in these IDP camps the living and hygienic conditions are extremely poor. So this is where all the efforts are needed to be deployed in order to provide safer water to this population, but also appropriate nutrition and food to the 10 million people affected.

Veronica Riemer: Foreign governments and international experts have been instrumental in the response to the floods. In the first 50 days more than 5.6 million people were treated for a range of health conditions including: acute diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, suspected malaria and skin diseases.

Teams from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh have travelled to Pakistan and have visited dozens of treatment centres established by WHO and partners to ensure the highest level of care is delivered.

Dr Azhar-ul Islam (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research): At this moment the Pakistani authorities along with all stakeholders of NGOs and UN are doing a great job but when the water starts to recede the organisms concentrate and there is an upsurge of diarrhoeal diseases but also other infectious diseases like skin infections.

Veronica Riemer: One measure the Bangladeshi experts have been promoting is the use of oral rehydration solution, or ORS, to treat patients with acute diarrhoea. Dr Pradip Bardhan describes the importance of this simple yet effective treatment.

Dr Pradip Bardhan: Most of the deaths will happen, if they happen, in diarrhoeal patients due to dehydration, and ORS is probably the best way to combat this. If it is started at home early in the beginning of the diarrhoeal problem, the patient will not go into a severely dehydrated state, which is really a concern.

Veronica Riemer: Dr Sabatinelli explains that while responding to the current health threats, rebuilding sustainable health facilities is crucial for ensuring improved levels of care for the future.

Dr Guido Sabatinelli: The issue is how far we have to go into rehabilitating a health infrastructure that was not well developed and with very limited services. I hope that this flood is an opportunity to reconsider the way how primary health care services are now delivered in Pakistan, but not only for flooded areas but also for the entire Pakistan.

Veronica Riemer: On 17 September, a new response plan was launched, seeking $200 million to fund over 90 health projects being conducted by WHO, other UN agencies, and local and international humanitarian organizations.

That's all for this edition of the WHO podcast. If you would more information about health response in Pakistan, there are links on the transcript page of this podcast episode. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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