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WHO calls on countries to disaster-proof their hospitals

THE World Health Organization yesterday urged governments to make their hospitals disaster-proof, nearly a year after a massive earthquake devastated parts of southwest China - including scores of hospitals.

The message was driven home by the situation in central Italy, where a powerful earthquake struck Monday, killing more than 200 people and leaving 17,000 homeless.

Parts of the main hospital in the medieval town of L'Aquila, near where the quake struck, were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use.

"The tragedy of emergencies or disasters is compounded when health facilities fail," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan at an event in Beijing marking World Health Day. "When a hospital collapses, all its functions are disrupted; lives that depend on emergency care can be lost."

The damage caused to health facilities during natural disasters can be devastating exactly at the time when they are most needed, making it crucial that hospitals be built to withstand such emergencies, she said. Chan said governments should select safe locations when building hospitals, ensure that existing facilities are made more resilient and develop emergency response plans, among other measures.

The May 12 quake in southwest China's Sichuan Province obliterated or damaged more than 11,000 health facilities across the region, Chan said. The 8.0-magnitude temblor was the country's worst in a generation, leaving nearly 90,000 people dead or missing and another 5 million homeless.

In its aftermath, hospitals that remained standing did not have enough staff, medicine or necessary equipment. They were quickly overwhelmed with injured people pouring in from hard-hit areas.

Similar problems confronted Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake that destroyed half of the affected area's hospitals, rural clinics and drug dispensaries, and Aceh province in Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami left 61 percent of its medical facilities damaged, the WHO said.

Chan warned that the number of emergencies has been rising and is likely to continue going up with increasing urbanization and the effects of climate change.

"As climate change brings more frequent and more severe weather events, we need to anticipate, to plan for and respond to a growing number of areas that will become disaster-prone," she said.

Chan also said that China's newly announced plan for health care reform is in line with WHO principles to provide equal access to universal health care.

She said the level of consultation by the Chinese government before launching the reform was "commendable."


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