Death toll from massive Chilean earthquake tops 720, reports UN health agency

Scene from Chile following the 27 Feb '10 earthquake

2 March 2010 – The death toll from the strongest earthquake to strike Chile in more than 50 years officially stands at 723 people, the public health arm of the United Nations in the region said today, as it assesses the healthcare needs of survivors.

Some 80 per cent of the South American country’s population was affected by the 8.8-magnitude quake, which occurred just off the coast of Chile in the early hours of Saturday morning, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

PAHO, the regional office of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), reported that health care services continue to meet the immediate needs on the ground, with the Government mainly concerned about re-establishing routine services – dialysis, chemotherapy and radiation among others – before patient health is jeopardized.

Four of the seven hospitals in the worst hit of the six affected regions – Maule, which has suffered 544 deaths to date – are too badly damaged to function, but the majority of the 76 hospitals in the rest of the disaster zone are operating without major difficulties, said PAHO.

PAHO is coordinating with neighbouring countries which are offering temporary health facilities, with Argentina and Brazil committed to sending field hospitals which can be up and running within 24 hours, and Peru pledging to send a field hospital with surgical capacity and in-patient hospital care.

In addition, the Government has requested 800,000 doses of the Hepatitis A vaccine to avoid an outbreak, and PAHO is seeking to secure a donation from pharmaceutical producers.

The quake, thought to be the fifth biggest recorded in history, damaged around 1.5 million homes, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg told reporters at the world body’s Headquarters in New York.

Ms. Bragg stressed that the rescue and relief efforts in the six affected regions – out of the country’s 15 regions – is “firmly in the hands” of the Government of Chile, which she said is probably the best prepared country in Latin America for such disasters and is handling the situation well.

Following a preliminary assessment, the Government has requested very specific priority items – including field hospitals with surgical facilities, dialysis centres, generators, satellite phones, structural damage evaluation systems, salt water purification systems, mobile bridges and field kitchens – which it expects to be supplied largely through bilateral arrangements.

She added that at the moment 19 UN staff, who work for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), are still unaccounted for – down from more than 60 on Monday.

“The UN stands ready to support in every way possible and has been in constant contact with the Government from the first days [of the disaster],” said Ms. Bragg. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has dispatched a small team to assist the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, the UN Resident Coordinator and the UN Country Team, she added. In a phone call to President Michelle Bachelet last night, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “reiterated that the UN is ready to help and the UN would do its utmost to make the items requested by the Chilean Government available as swiftly as possible,” his spokesperson, Martin Nesirky, said today.


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