Monday, 13 January 2014

Typhoon Haiyan: How UNICEF is responding to children’s health needs

A volunteer measures a child’s upper arm circumference – a gauge of nutritional status
© UNICEF/Dianan Valcarcel Silvela

I have just returned from Tacloban. I am a UNICEF health specialist and travelled there as part of UNICEF’s global support to help colleagues working to restore health systems that protect children in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolande).

Even after my return home to Bangkok, I am still awed by the fury of the Typhoon, its massive destruction. I am also struck by the strength and the spirit of the people whose lives it decimated. Among the heaps of debris, there are signs that announce “we will rise again” and “homeless, roofless but not hopeless”.

The evidence of the power of the Typhoon is everywhere. Acres of coconut trees have been stripped of their crowning foliage. Wooden huts have been razed to the ground and brick and cement buildings are roofless and have broken windows.

The same destruction has been wrought on the areas health facilities – roofs, windows and walls have been damaged, and many require total reconstruction. Wind and flood waters damaged medical supplies, power outages mean vaccines are no longer useable and electrical equipment like refrigerators – key elements of the cold chain that is essential to protect medicines – no longer function.

The Government estimates that more than US$2 million will be needed to rebuild the health sector in Tacloban, and the cost of the loss of medical and pharmaceutical supplies is yet to be determined.

Children receiving oral polio vaccine as part of the post-Typhoon campaign
© UNICEF/Dianan Valcarcel Silvela

UNICEF Philippines is bringing in US$8 million worth of medical kits and diarrhoeal disease sets. Some US$2 million worth of vaccines have been ordered to replenish the government’s stock and US$10 million worth of cold chain equipment – generators, solar and ice-lined refrigerators capable of withstanding long power failures and cold rooms for storing vaccines – are en route.

Along with this essential medical hardware, UNICEF will bring in international expertise to support the Department of Health to build up its capacity to manage long-term investment in cold chain. Without the cold chain, essential medicines and vaccines that protect children from life-threatening illnesses cannot survive the heat – they become ineffective and fail to invoke the required immune response.

Even before this help arrives, UNICEF along with the World Health Organization and other partners has completed an immunization campaign that will protect thousands of children against measles and polio. The immunization campaign was also used to do nutritional screening – additional nutrition volunteers were added to the vaccination teams – as well as to provide Vitamin A supplementation.

Our current health priorities are to ensure that routine childhood immunization – the six EPI vaccines – are resumed, and to support the Government to restore maternal, newborn and child health services, with a particular focus on diarrhoea and dengue prevention and treatment.

In Tacloban suffered massive damage. Electricity lines and coconut trees are still down and the clean-up continues but – about two months after the disaster -- you can see a newly erected hut. © UNICEF/Nabila Zaka

With all the work we have to do, it is sometimes easy to forget that the caregivers are human too. I worked with government colleagues who have lost family members and others whose houses are in need of urgent repair. Many midwives have not only been rendered homeless but also lost their private birthing homes and clinics.

I met a Filipino nurse who was part of the group trying to help midwives start their work again. “We gathered them and let them cry over what had happened to them and their loved ones. It’s OK to cry and get over it before you gather courage to rise again,” she said.

Working as a member of UNICEF’s Tacloban team was a privilege. I saw managers who sat with their teams in the heat and humidity using smiles and humour to lighten the atmosphere. I saw colleagues whose energy levels are high even after months spent working to help in consecutive emergency surge missions. I also met staff members who had to be pushed to take a break– who couldn’t see they were exhausted because they were so preoccupied with getting Tacloban’s children what they need.

We were all ‘one’ for the cause of children and this made me – once again – so proud to be part of UNICEF!

The author:  Nabila Zaka is Maternal and Child Health Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific