A month after Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu continues to face health challenges

News and Press Release
Originally published
A campaign to vaccinate children under 5 years of age against measles is underway in Vanuatu © WHO

PORT VILA, 15 April 2015 – Working with the Ministry of Health of Vanuatu and other partners, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made significant progress in addressing the health needs of the more than 160 000 people affected by Cyclone Pam. However, a month after the Category 5 storm ravaged the Pacific island country, many pressing health challenges remain.

“The impact of Cyclone Pam will be long lasting,” said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “We will continue to respond to the urgent needs of the people, as we use this tragedy as an opportunity to help rebuild a stronger health system.”

WHO has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ministry of Health to assess needs and coordinate the emergency health response. So far, WHO has collaborated with the Ministry of Health in coordinating:

  • 20 foreign medical teams that have delivered critical care in affected areas;
  • 65 medical evacuations of patients;
  • distribution of emergency medical drugs and supplies, diarrhoeal disease treatment kits, and 190 000 water purification tablets;
  • a measles vaccination campaign that has reached 16 000 children under 5 years of age, who also received deworming treatment, vitamin A supplements and soap; and
  • an early-warning disease surveillance system designed to rapidly detect and respond to outbreaks.

While progress has been made, those affected by the cyclone continue to face life-threatening risks from a lack of food and safe water, growing disease outbreaks and a health system struggling to get back on its feet. In addition, a significant shortfall in financial support for the health response has raised concerns about whether efforts can be sustained.

“The Ministry of Health and health partners have helped save many lives in the past month,” said Dr Jacob Kool, WHO Country Liaison Officer for Vanuatu. “But we are not out of the woods yet. We need more support if we are to continue to provide the health services the people need.”

Only 23% of the nearly US$ 5 million requested for health-related interventions has been received, according to the most recent report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The funds are required to address urgent health and nutrition needs until June 2015. Without additional funding, many are concerned that people affected by the cyclone will not receive the health services they urgently need.

The cyclone left 11 people dead and caused widespread devastation across 22 islands of Vanuatu. The entire population is at increased risk of disease outbreaks. Approximately 110 000 people are in urgent need of clean drinking water. Many require nutritional support, including 12 500 children under 5 years of age, according to the most recent report by the Government and partners.

An increasing number of reports of acute diarrhoea in children has alarmed both parents and health workers. There is also a growing number of reports of respiratory illnesses. The risk is also imminent for other waterborne and mosquito-borne diseases, such as typhoid and dengue fever.

At least 51 health facilities were damaged. That number may increase as assessments are completed. The delivery of health services has been further complicated by unreliable communication systems, road and sea transportation, as well as water and energy supplies.

“The situation for people on the southern island of Tanna is still very serious due to a lack of shelter, electricity, food and clean water,” said Dr Jean-Olivier Guintran, a WHO medical officer who just returned from Tanna. “It will be challenging to deal with these increasingly urgent basic needs of the population in coming months.”

A shortage of drugs and medical supplies in Vanuatu is also anticipated due to the increase in demand created by the cyclone. WHO is supporting the Ministry of Health in monitoring this potential problem.

WHO continues to support the response and work closely with the Ministry of Health through the long-term process of rebuilding the health system.

For further information, please contact:
Ms Helen Yu
Communications Officer in Vanuatu
Tel: +678 27683 ext 83204
Mobile: +678 5478082

Mr Ryan Baker
Risk Communications Consultant, Division of Health Security and Emergencies
Telephone: +632 528 9986

Mr Ruel E. Serrano
Assistant, Public Information Office
Telephone: +632 528 9993