Inter-American response to Venezuela disaster

Pan American Health Organization
Regional Office for the Americas
World Health Organization

Washington, DC, December 21, 1999 (PAHO)

  • Representatives of the Inter-American System, the Inter-American Development Bank, PAHO, and other agencies met today at the Pan American Health Organization with officials from Venezuela to coordinate immediate as well as long-term responses to the tragedy caused by floods and mudslides that have affected thousands of Venezuelans.

Ambassador Virginia Contreras, Venezuela's envoy to the OAS, said the most immediate needs are for cash contributions, tractors and other heavy equipment, and trailers or prefabricated temporary housing. She said authorities estimate there may be as many as 20,000 dead and some 200,000 left homeless. "We are appealing for contributions in cash because in many cases we have goods piled up and no place to put them," she said.

The Inter-American system, comprising various agencies in health, finance, development and finance, was mobilized to respond to the recent flooding, and representatives at the PAHO meeting outlined what they have done or are planning. The Inter-American Development Bank channeled $50,000 to Venezuela for health, transportation, and other needs, and will redirect $200 million in previously approved loans for use in emergency road building, education, health, and agriculture. The Pan American Development Fund has mobilized some $75,000 in donations and materials such as tents, blankets and water purification tablets. The Organization of American States gave $20,000 and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture and the Inter-American Defense Board pledged support.

Dr. Mirta Roses, PAHO's Assistant Director, said the UN and Inter-American system agencies were coordinating responses and preparing to evaluate medium and long-term needs in Venezuela after the emergency phase is over. "Venezuela will need long-term aid, not just immediate help, to recover from the disaster," she said.

"People are very generous but it's important to channel and orient that generosity so that Venezuela doesn't end up with things it doesn't need," Dr. Roses said. "We want to emphasize the need for cash contributions to Venezuela instead of clothes or food."

She noted that cadavers do not cause epidemics, as commonly thought, but that it is important to give people a chance to identify their family members who have died, for legal as well as psychological reasons.

PAHO's initial appeal for funds to help the health sector recover has already resulted in a pledge of $160,000 from the United Kingdom for health activities including epidemiological surveillance, food safety, emergency operations centers, and training and information dissemination.

PAHO's representative in Caracas is coordinating response with support from disaster specialists, epidemiologists, and sanitary engineers, and SUMA, the humanitarian supply management system developed by PAHO to classify, sort, inventory and prioritize incoming supplies, has been activated at one site and is being operated by civil defense authorities.

Venezuela is now in the "acute emergency phase: search and rescue operations, relocation of displaced persons, and recovery of cadavers. During the next phase there will be a heightened health risk and health authorities in Venezuela are strengthening their epidemiological surveillance system in the affected areas to closely monitor potential outbreaks of diseases," PAHO said in its appeal.

"While disasters themselves do not cause outbreaks of disease, they do contribute to deteriorating sanitary conditions that can provide an environment for outbreaks of infectious diseases or diseases already endemic in a country, " PAHO said.

PAHO has requested funds from international donors for coordination of health activities in Caracas and affected states; for provision of safe water supplies and basic sanitation to persons displaced by flooding; for a mental health program among affected populations; for management of humanitarian supplies, rehabilitation of essential health facilities; strengthening the vaccination programs, and purchase of essential supplies.
Vaccine experts at PAHO have issued guidelines for vaccinations in Venezuela, emphasizing immunization against measles for all people in shelters, and maintenance of routine vaccination services including replacement of vaccines used and refrigeration equipment which keeps them cold.

PAHO has also issued a new guide for humanitarian assistance in disaster situations, which emphasizes practical advice and recommendations, and provides strong evidence that humanitarian assistance can considerably benefit a country ravaged by disaster if it responds with real needs. Likewise, when responding with unsolicited donations, or when donors have a misguided view of those needs, humanitarian assistance can also become a burden.

"We would ask people to review the guidelines on disaster donations before collecting or sending any type of clothing, drinking water and similar items," said Dr. Jean-Luc Poncelet of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness Program. "Cash assistance is by far the most effective type of assistance." These guidelines can be downloaded from the PAHO Web site:

PAHO, which also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve health and raise living standards.

For further information contact: Daniel Epstein, tel (202) 974-3459 , fax (202) 974-3143, Office of Public Information,