50 days after the quake

Fifty days after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Papua New Guinea (PNG), limited delivery of essential health services has resumed in earthquake-affected provinces.

However, thousands remain vulnerable to health threats as they continue to live in crowded temporary settlements with inadequate access to clean water and medical services.

More than 500,000 were affected by the earthquake that struck on 26 February. At least 25,000 people have been displaced, while many communities continue to face compromised water and food supplies, significantly increasing threats of disease outbreaks.

Of the 77 health facilities that were damaged by the earthquake, only 10 remain closed. However, services remain limited at most of the re-opened health facilities.

WHO on the ground within 24 hours

The World Health Organization (WHO) was on the ground in the affected provinces within 24 hours of the earthquake. WHO immediately activated the Incident Management System to coordinate the Organization’s response.

“WHO responded right away, deploying medicines and supplies to the earthquake-affected areas to treat those who were affected,” said Dr Zhang Zaixing, Incident Manager from WHO.

“Our people were out there in the field, alongside the National Department of Health and partners, assessing the damage to health facilities and working to re-establish life-saving health services.”

WHO has designated the earthquake a Grade 1 Emergency and has deployed additional staff and supplies to the Country Office in PNG. To date, WHO has repurposed and mobilised 19 national and international staff for the earthquake response, covering areas such as partner coordination, epidemiology, surveillance, information management, health operations, mental health, risk communication, administration and logistics.

WHO also delivered an Inter-Agency Emergency Health Kit containing essential medicines, supplies and equipment for 10,000 people for approximately 3 months. Diarrhoeal disease kits were pre-positioned in the country to help prepare for a potential outbreak and surgical supplies were sent to Tari and Mendi hospitals.

WHO leads health response in support of Government

Within 48 hours of the earthquake, the Health Cluster was activated at the national level in Port Moresby.

Twenty five partner agencies are now working together to address the immediate medical needs of the affected populations. The Health Cluster provides a venue for the identification of needs and gaps and the prioritization of support, to reach as many people as possible and avoid duplication of work.

WHO co-chairs the Health Cluster, alongside the National Department of Health (NDOH).

A plan of action for a coordinated joint response

Within a week of the earthquake, a health response plan had been jointly developed by NDOH and WHO.

Within days, a Health Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), jointly managed by NDOH and WHO, was established in Port Moresby to coordinate the health response at the national level. Local-level EOCs were also established in Mendi and Tari to provide a hub to coordinate the efficient delivery of health services to the affected communities. Field coordinators and emergency responders were mobilised by WHO and sent to the affected areas.

“The Health EOCs were instrumental in commanding and coordinating the public health response and in ensuring health services are reaching the people most in need,” said Dr Luo Dapeng.

Staff based at the EOCs also established an Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) for the early detection of diseases and quick response to disease outbreaks.

Dr Joseph Birisi, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Highlands Provincial Health Authority, acknowledged the quick response of WHO and development partners in mobilising support toward the health response.

“I am grateful to the health partners, especially WHO, in providing direct support to the province,” Dr Birisi added.

High-level support from WHO for the people of PNG

WHO’s response to the PNG earthquake has the high-level support of the entire Organization. The WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific, based in Manila, the Philippines, provides backstopping assistance to the Country Office.

During her visit to Port Moresby in March, Dr Li Ailan, WHO Regional Emergency Director for the Western Pacific, reaffirmed WHO’s commitment to the Government and people of PNG and in scaling up in its support to the health response and recovery efforts. She also guided the WHO Country Office team in the response operations.

Fifty days after: onward to restoration and recovery

Earthquake-affected communities continue to face a high risk of communicable diseases, linked to overcrowding in evacuation centres, low immunisation rates and a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. There is also a continuing need to provide mental health and psyscosocial support to help people cope with the stress, loss and anxiety they have faced and return to their normal lives.

Reaching some of the affected communities over the past 50 days has been extremely challenging, due to both damaged infrastructure and security constraints. While many of the roads have re-opened, the security situation has now worsened, particularly in Tari.

Despite these challenges, WHO is determined to find ways, alongside the NDOH and partners, to deliver life-saving care to those who need it. The Organization is committed to helping the country recover and rebuild.

“As Papua New Guinea marks 50 days since the earthquake struck, our thoughts are with those still suffering from the aftermath of this disaster. The job is not yet done, there are still massive efforts needed towards recovery.

“WHO will continue to support authorities to address the key health concerns and ensure that the affected provinces build back better and safer,” Dr Luo added.

WHO’s initial response to the earthquake in Papua New Guinea was funded by the WHO Contingency Fund for Emergencies (CFE). Additional support was also provided through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the United Nations’ global emergency response fund to deliver funding quickly to humanitarian responders and kick-start life-saving action whenever and wherever crisis hit.

“We are extremely thankful to the donors who have contributed to the CFE, including Canada, China, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, India, Japan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This emergency fund greatly help us do the immediate action to save lives,” added Dr Luo.

“The people in the affected areas deserve our continued support as they remain determined to recover in the face of immense obstacles and personal tragedy.”

(Dr Luo Dapeng, WHO Representative to Papua New Guineas, immunizes a child in the Southern Highlands. Credit: WHO/JRivaca)

Press release