Health sector focus for earthquake preparedness

Earthquake-prone Nepal is speeding up efforts to strengthen the ability of its health facilities to withstand a major earthquake, but risk assessments need updating, say officials.



Almost a decade has passed since the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) last assessed the structural soundness of health facilities to cope with major earthquakes.



The August 2002 report looked at hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley, home to more than 1.5 million people, and found that 13 out of 14 run the risk of destruction in the event of an 8.1 Richter scale earthquake as in 1934. It estimated up to 5 percent of the valley’s population could be killed and up to 25 percent - 450,000 people at the time - severely injured.



Though many hospitals still need retrofitting - e.g. installing wider low-level columns and steel bar reinforcements - hospital staff are better prepared for natural disasters, said Dharma Raj Pandey, deputy director of the Disaster Management Department of the Nepal Red Cross Society.



Since 2010, district level health contingency planning exercises have been under way in hospitals in 21 of the country’s 75 districts; 54 districts await training. The government and WHO are also mapping health facilities using GPS (Global Positioning System) to help plan disaster response.



“There is more awareness and more progress on health preparedness in an earthquake situation, but still there is a lot to be done,” said Hyo-Jeong Kim, technical officer with WHO’s Emergency and Humanitarian Action in Nepal.



Blood banks



Most of the country’s 70 blood banks - eight in Kathmandu - are not earthquake-proof.



“The situation of the blood banks is a burning issue and a new assessment is needed on how to better protect these key centres,” said Pandey.



The need for better earthquake preparedness is gaining government and NGO attention, said Kim.



“Even the government’s health department is vulnerable to earthquakes and this means that retrofitting the buildings is absolutely necessary,” said Dal Bahadur Khadga Chettri, official from the Disaster Management Section of the Department of Health.



On average, earthquake-proofing a building costs 20 percent of what it would cost to demolish the building and rebuild a sound structure. It is cost-effective, but money is an obstacle, according to the government - though WHO says donor agencies are showing interest in supporting such projects.



Nepal has had nine major earthquakes roughly every 75 years since 1255 AD. The last one, in 1934, flattened Kathmandu. According to earthquake experts, major seismic activity is scientifically inevitable and historically overdue.



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