Policy development in disaster preparedness and management: lessons learned from the January 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India

Rannveig Bremer
Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 2003, 18 (4): 372-84

INTRODUCTION: During the last decades, several humanitarian emergencies have occurred, with an increasing number of humanitarian organizations taking part in providing assistance. However, need assessments, medical intelligence, and coordination of the aid often are sparse, resulting in the provision of ineffective and expensive assistance. When an earthquake with the strength of 7.7 on the Richter scale struck the state of Gujarat, India, during the early morning on 26 January 2001, nearly 20,000 persons were killed, nearly 170,000 were injured, and 600,000 were rendered homeless. This study identifies how assigned indicators to measure the level of health care may improve disaster preparedness and management, thus, reducing human suffering.

METHODS: During a two-week mission in the disaster area, the disaster relief provided to the disaster-affected population of Gujarat was evaluated. Vulnerability due to climate, geography, culture, religion, gender, politics, and economy, as each affected the outcome, was studied. By assigning indicators to the eight ELEMENTS of the Primary Health Care System as advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the level of public health and healthcare services were estimated, an evaluation of the impact of the disaster was conducted, and possible methods for improving disaster management are suggested. Representatives of the major relief organizations involved were interviewed on their relief policies. Strategies to improve disaster relief, such as policy development in the different aspects of public health/primary health care, were sought.

RESULTS: Evaluation of the pre-event status of the affected society revealed a complex situation in a vulnerable society with substantial deficiencies in the existing health system that added to the severity of the disaster. Most of the civilian hospitals had collapsed, and army field hospitals provided medical care to most of the patients under primitive conditions using tents. When the foreign field hospitals arrived five to seven days after the earthquake, most of the casualties requiring surgical intervention already had been operated on. Relief provided to the disaster victims had reduced quality for the following reasons: (1) proper public health indicators had not yet been developed; (2) efficient coordination was lacking, (3) insufficient, overestimated, or partly irrelevant relief was provided; (4) relief was delayed because of bureaucracy; and (5) policies on the delivery of disaster relief had not been developed.

CONCLUSION: To optimize the effectiveness of limited resources, disaster preparedness and the provision of feasible and necessary aid is of utmost importance. An appropriate, rapid, crisis intervention could be achieved by continual surveillance of the world's situation by a Relief Coordination Center. A panel of experts could evaluate and coordinate the international disaster responses and make use of stored emergency material and emergency teams. A successful disaster response will depend on accurate and relevant medical intelligence and socio-geographical mapping in advance of, during, and after the event(s) causing the disaster. More effective and feasible equipment coordinated with the relief provided by the rest of the world is necessary. If policies and agreements are developed as part of disaster preparedness, on international, bilateral, and national levels, disaster relief may be more relevant, less chaotic, and easier to estimate, thus, bringing improved relief to the disaster victims.

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