Saturday, March 6, 2010

Disease in the Aftermath

The major earthquake is over in Chile, but the next round of crisis is just getting started — disease. It doesn't take long after normal services like trash removal, the delivery of fresh water, and a functioning sewage system stop working for things to start rotting and breeding disease. That's what's happening in Chile now.

In the aftermath of a catastrophe, not all the debris is inorganic. Whatever is organic starts to decay, attracting insects, rats and other vermin that spread disease. Doctors in Chile are reporting increased incidents of diarrhea from unclean drinking water, as well as a growing number of patients with injuries caused by living around the rubble of broken glass, torn metal, and fractured buildings.

Not only that, but there is garbage (and dead fish in the coastal fishing villages) putrefying in the streets. The need now, according to the mayor of the port city of Talcahuano, is for clean water, an electrical system, and a functioning sewage system. "We need to clean up rotting fish in the streets," he said. "We need chemical toilets, and when it starts raining, people living in tents are going to get wet and sick. All this is going to cause infections."

It wouldn't be so bad if 36 hospitals hadn't been heavily damaged or destroyed. It wouldn't be so bad if the country's military didn't have to be occupied trying to stop the looting of pharmacies that has resulted in massive shortage of medicines that could be used to treat patients. It wouldn't be so bad if all the survivors could get tetanus and hepatitis vaccinations. It wouldn't be so bad if doctors could easily sterilize their instruments and maintain sterile operating and treatment rooms. Unfortunately, it is so bad because all of the things I listed are now the reality.

Lessons for us:
  • Get over your belief that this can't happen here. It can. It will. It's just a matter of time. 
  • Realize that once the initial cause of the catastrophe has ended (the hurricane is over, the tornado has stopped, the earth had quit shaking, whatever), the problems of living with the aftermath are often larger than the original crisis. 
  • Recognize that public services such as ambulance, hospital, police, fire department, water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, communication, transportation, food, and stores of every kind will stop operating.
  • Prepare to take care of all (or as many as possible) of those needs yourself by taking the following steps: 
  • Become trained in first aid.
  • You will need to provide security for yourself and your family.
  • Learn to put out fires in your own house, and have a plan to evacuate to safety.
  • You must be able to provide you own safe drinking water and food.
  • Have an independent means of cooking and staying warm.
  • You need to be able to provide your own alternative shelter if you are forced to evacuate your home. 
  • For communication have two-way radios for members of the family to stay in touch with each other, and an emergency multi-band radio so you can listen to broadcasts to be aware of what's happening.
  • For transportation, it would be a good idea to use bicycles or motorcycles that can easily navigate rough terrain and debris-strewn roads.
  • Create an emergency supply of necessary items that will not be available when the stores have been looted to death, such as toilet paper, sanitation supplies, prescription medications, etc.
The key to survival is preparation. 

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