Haiti + 1 more

Report by the Director-General to the Executive Board, Dr Margaret Chan, at its 126th session Geneva, Switzerland, 18 January 2010

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Mister Chairman, members of the Executive Board, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you, all around this table, for honouring the memory of our colleague, Dr Ali, Somalia's minister of health. This tragedy touches us in yet another way. The bombing occurred during a graduation ceremony at a medical school in Mogadishu. Six years of medical training vanished together with several of those lost lives. WHO has been supporting that medical school, and we will continue to do so.

I know you will join me in expressing our deep condolences to the people of Haiti and our gratitude to the many who are rushing to provide assistance. The loss of life cannot be reliably estimated at present, but is at least 50,000 and rising. Already, this disaster ranks among the most devastating and logistically challenging in recent history. We are seeing the difficulties that arise when disaster strikes an already disastrous public health situation.

Many of the problems we try to prevent after a disaster were already present in Haiti. These include diseases associated with poor water and sanitation systems, low immunization coverage and widespread malnutrition, outbreaks of infectious diseases, a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and erratic delivery of medicines and care.

The almost unbelievable damage to infrastructure extends to hospitals and health centres. The WHO premises were damaged, but we are operational. A WHO/PAHO team of specialists is on the ground and is spearheading the health response to the earthquake.

The first priorities are to assess the nature and magnitude of emergency health needs, to treat the injured, to recover bodies, and to set up surveillance for infectious diseases. Offers of help continue to pour in. But aid must closely match urgent health needs and be tightly coordinated This is part of WHO's job. We have every reason to be concerned about the health of survivors.

Making hospitals safe during emergencies was the theme for last year's World Health Day. One point is obvious. When infrastructures are already weak, the vulnerability of populations to disasters is vastly increased.