PAHO, Inter-American System Mobilizes to Help Venezuela After Disaster

Regional Office for the Americas
World Health Organization
Washington, December 23, 1999 -- The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has mobilized its entire office in Caracas, comprising 32 staff members, has brought in additional experts, and is working with Venezuelan authorities to mobilize emergency aid and strengthen health sector coordination, said PAHO Deputy Director Dr. David Brnadling-Bennett at a news conference today.

Venezuela has been battered by heavy rains, floods and mudslides which have left some 200,000 people homeless and as many as 25,000 are feared dead, according to Venezuelan Civil Defense authorities. The Government declared a state of emergency Dec. 16 for seven states (Zulia, Falcon, Yaracuy, Nueva Esparta, Carabobo, Tachira, and Miranda) and the Federal District of Caracas. Many roads and bridges are damaged or destroyed, and flooding and landslides have left many communities isolated.

Dr. Brandling-Bennett said the Inter-American system, including the Organization of American States and its specialized agencies, as well as the United Nations system and the Inter-American Development Bank responded immediately to the tragedy in Venezuela.

What the country most needs in terms of donations is cash, Dr. Brandling-Bennett said, because it can be immediately used for priority needs, while donations of clothes and other goods are difficult to ship, sort and store and place a burden on distribution systems.

He said PAHO has activated the Humanitarian Supply Management System (SUMA) to classify, sort, inventory and prioritize incoming supplies, with three SUMA experts already in Venezuela. PAHO's Representative in Caracas, Dr. Daniel Isaias Gutierrez, is also acting as the resident representative for the entire United Nations system in Venezuela, he said. In addition, PAHO has also mobilized disaster experts from its offices in Colombia to help coordinate activities; a sanitary engineer from Nicaragua to assist in safe water supplies and sanitation; an information expert from Peru; epidemiologists from Colombia to assist in strengthening disease surveillance systems and laboratories; 4 supply management experts from Colombia, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica; and a mental health specialist from Honduras to help provide psychological support to the affected population.

PAHO has an internal emergency task force working with Venezuelan authorities, and has received $200,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, $160,000 from the United Kingdom, and set aside an extra $25,000 from its own funds for health sector activities including epidemiological surveillance, safe water and sanitation, he said.

Virginia Contreras, Venezuela's Ambassador to the Organization of American States, said the most immediate needs are cash, tractors and other heavy equipment, penicillin, powdered milk, and trailers or other temporary housing. "We are appealing for cash donations because in many cases we have so many goods we have no place to store them," she said.

Although the tragedy is unprecedented for Venezuela, she added, with some areas buried under as much as 30 feet of mud, the country's residents have united and are ready to begin the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure. She thanked PAHO for its quick response and support of Venezuela during the disaster.

OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, represented by Enrique Lagos, said the Organization's Permanent Council was planning an emergency session to discuss additional measures in light of Venezuela's situation.

So far as part of the Inter-American System response, 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 Foundation has mobilized some $125,000 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.

In addition, other UN agencies are also responding to the disaster, and many countries have also given or pledged substantial support to Venezuela.

The Pan American Health Organization, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and raise the living standards of their peoples. It serves as the Regional Office of the World Health Organization, and has offices in 27 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as nine scientific and technical centers apart from its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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