Everyone knows earthquakes like the recent magnitude 6.8 earthquake in Morocco can cause significant damage to infrastructure, homes and the environment. But the immediate, often visible devastation like collapsed buildings and displaced individuals are only part of the equation. There are also many and substantial public health concerns that cascade in the aftermath. Not only physical and mental health concerns for individuals, but the destruction caused by earthquakes can lead to diseases, compounded traumas and medical emergencies that require immediate attention. Combine this with limited resources and infrastructure damage, and it becomes crucial for communities to prioritize health services instantly and effectively.
According to WHO records, between 1998-2017, earthquakes caused nearly 750,000 deaths globally. That’s more than half of all deaths related to natural disasters. During the same timeframe, “more than 125 million people were affected by earthquakes, meaning they were injured, made homeless, displaced or evacuated during the emergency phase of the disaster.” This shows the widespread and globally common need to better understand and plan for earthquake disaster relief.
The most common immediate public health consequences of an earthquake relate to physical harm. The destruction of buildings and infrastructure can lead to injuries, including fractures, lacerations and crush injuries. In some cases, these can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. But the latter displacement of individuals and communities can result in overcrowding in temporary shelters, increasing the risk of infectious diseases such as respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases and vector-borne illnesses – setting off a chain reaction of problems.
So how do leaders ensure access to proper care, needed services, sanitation and trusted communication during natural disasters like those in Morocco? First, is knowing what the immediate physical injuries might be in the population. The most common are:
– Fractures and Broken Bones: The shaking and collapsing of buildings during an earthquake can result in fractures and broken bones. This can occur when individuals are hit by falling debris or when trapped under collapsed structures. Fractures can be open (the bone breaks through the skin) or closed (the bone remains beneath the skin).
– Soft Tissue Injuries: Soft tissue injuries, such as cuts, bruises and sprains, are also common after an earthquake. These injuries can occur due to falls, being struck by objects, or being trapped in debris. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warns that soft tissue injuries may range from minor cuts and bruises to more severe open-wound lacerations.
– Crush Injuries: In some cases, individuals may experience crush injuries during an earthquake. When a part of the body is trapped under heavy objects or debris the compression damages tissues, nerves and organs. Crush injuries are often life-threatening.
– Head and Brain Injuries: Head and brain injuries can occur during an earthquake, particularly when individuals are struck by falling objects or hit by collapsing structures. These range from minor concussions to more severe traumatic brain injuries. It is important to receive medical attention for any head or brain injury, as they can have long-term effects on an individual’s health.
– Respiratory Injuries: In areas where there are collapsed buildings or extensive dust and debris, individuals may experience respiratory injuries. Inhaling dust, smoke or toxic gases can lead to respiratory distress, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, may be particularly vulnerable to these injuries.
The second key element for optimal earthquake response is understanding the biggest barriers to health following an earthquake. These are much broader and require knowledge of disaster preparedness and relief. They include:
– Access To Health Services: In the aftermath of an earthquake, access to health services can be severely disrupted. Hospitals and clinics may be damaged or destroyed, making it difficult for individuals to receive medical care. Lack of care can exacerbate existing health conditions and lead to complications. It is crucial for emergency response teams to prioritize the restoration of health services and the provision of medical supplies to affected areas. This includes establishing temporary medical facilities near affected areas, equipping them with essential medical supplies and mobilizing trained medical personnel to provide immediate assistance. By setting up these emergency medical services, communities can ensure that those in need receive prompt and life-saving medical care.
– Water And Sanitation: After an earthquake there is often disruption to water and sanitation systems. The CDC asserts that damage to these infrastructures can lead to the contamination of water sources, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities can also contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. It is essential for emergency response teams to prioritize the restoration of water and sanitation systems to prevent further health risks.
– Coordinating with Local Health Providers: Another important aspect of prioritizing health is to coordinate with local care providers. This involves identifying and collaborating with hospitals, clinics and other facilities that are still operational after the earthquake. By working together, communities can leverage the existing health infrastructure and resources to provide comprehensive medical services to the affected population. It also helps in distributing the burden of provisions and prevents overwhelming a single health facility.
– Engaging the Community: Engaging the community is crucial in prioritizing access to health services after an earthquake. The Red Cross contends this involves everything from trust-building activities to raising awareness about available services to educating the community about common injuries and diseases that can occur after an earthquake to promoting preventive measures. Communities can organize health camps, conduct workshops and distribute informational materials to empower individuals to take care of their health and seek medical assistance when needed. By actively involving the community, access to healthcare can be improved and sustained in the long run.
– Addressing Mental And Emotional Health Needs: In addition to physical health, it is essential to address the mental needs of the affected population. Earthquakes can cause immense psychological trauma, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. Communities should prioritize the availability of mental health professionals and establish counseling centers to provide emotional support to those affected.
– Building Resilient Infrastructure: Lastly, communities should focus on building resilient health infrastructure to better withstand future earthquakes. This includes constructing earthquake-resistant hospitals and clinics, implementing disaster preparedness plans and investing in technologies that can aid in emergency response and care delivery. By proactively strengthening the health infrastructure, communities can minimize the impact of future earthquakes and ensure continuous access to healthcare services.
In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, communities are faced with numerous challenges, one of the most critical being access to needed care. Public health concerns after an earthquake are diverse and require a coordinated response from health providers, emergency response teams and the community. Preparedness efforts, including education on earthquake safety, can help mitigate the impact on public health. Additionally, post-earthquake response should prioritize access to health services, mental health support, clean water and sanitation facilities. By addressing these concerns, communities can work towards rebuilding and recovering in a way that prioritizes the health and well-being of their community.