Rebuilding shattered health system an urgent priority in next phase of Typhoon Haiyan response

MANILA, Philippines | 6 December 2013 — One month after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies as top priorities expanding essential health services, reviving clinics and hospitals, preventing disease and scaling up mental health services as the relief effort shifts from emergency to early recovery programmes.

The typhoon, one of the strongest ever recorded, tore through the central Philippines on 8 November, sweeping away villages, killing more than 5,700 people, wreaking havoc on the lives of more than 11 million others and damaging the majority of medical facilities.

From the outset of the disaster, WHO has been working side by side with the Philippines Department of Health to assess and address the life-saving needs of survivors and coordinate the emergency health response.

One month into the crisis, 181 medical teams (65 foreign, 116 local) are delivering critical care in affected areas. WHO has coordinated the distribution of more than 72 tonnes of medicines and supplies to support the relief effort. A mass campaign to vaccinate children under five against measles and polio is underway in storm-hit communities and evacuation centres. WHO and partners have also worked with the government to reactivate disease monitoring and reporting to ensure cases of infectious diseases are quickly identified and responded to.

The risk of infectious diseases remains high, particularly in the crowded and unsanitary environments where hundreds of thousands of homeless people are now sheltering. Infectious diseases like measles, water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever and vector-borne diseases like dengue, can thrive in such conditions.

However, the primary reasons people in affected areas are seeking medical care right now are acute respiratory infections, fever, diarrhoea, high blood pressure, skin diseases, new injuries from clearing debris and follow-up care for injuries and wounds sustained in the typhoon.

The medical teams are also tending to on-going health needs, including maternal and child health care. An average of 865 women give birth every day in affected areas, among whom an estimated 15% will experience complications, some of them life-threatening.

With many foreign medical teams preparing to leave within the next month or two and others arriving, WHO is working with the Department of Health to ensure a smooth transition.

At the one month mark in the crisis, priorities for the health sector include:

  • Extending and expanding treatment: Providing free primary and emergency health care as Philippine medical services are re-established. Special attention is required for obstetric and neonatal care and treatment of chronic diseases and infections like tuberculosis.
  • Preventing disease: Strengthening disease surveillance and response systems to inform health care needs and prevent the spread of disease. Other essential preventive measures include increasing coverage with recommended vaccines, pre-positioning supplies for possible outbreaks and improving waste management and water supply.
  • Restoring health infrastructure and systems: Supporting the Philippine Government as it repairs and rebuilds medical facilities and restores the drug supply and routine health programmes. Health authorities are still tallying total costs, but say they need an initial P 1.4 billion (around USD 32 million) for basic repairs and replacement of equipment and medicines.
  • Integrating healthcare with other key services: Linking health care with social support programmes, especially mental health assistance. WHO and the Department of Health have trained Filipino health professionals who will in turn train field workers to deliver psychological first aid to typhoon survivors.

“Rebuilding the health system is going to be part and parcel of rebuilding lives and livelihoods in central Philippines,” says Hall. “Given the scale of this disaster, it’s going to take a healthy population to fuel the region’s recovery.”

“Our immediate goal was to help plug critical gaps in medical services and to get the right experts and supplies into the right places swiftly and efficiently,”

Dr Julie Hall, WHO’s Representative in the Philippines.