Philippines: Haiyan reveals crucial role of health in building disaster resilience

Source(s): Thomson Reuters Foundation, trust.org

By Astrid Zweynert

It would be easy to think that disaster resilience is all about building safer houses and teaching communities what to do when a big storm strikes or an earthquake hits.

Another important factor is to make communities healthier so they can withstand future shocks better, aid workers say.

Rosielyn Cuayzon became one of five community health volunteers after Abaca, her village in the central Philippines, was struck by Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, two years ago.

"After Yolanda I felt I really wanted to help my community to have better health," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside the village community health centre, where about 20 women and their children were attending a monthly vaccination session.

"The Red Cross rebuilt our health centre after the typhoon and I've been a community health volunteer for more than a year to help educate people and give them proper information about health issues," said Cuayzon, who was pregnant with her third child.

Midwife Lorna Ordovez, who oversees the vaccinations, said in this farming community of just over 1,000 people, health problems had an immediate impact on people's livelihoods, even more so after disasters.

"Prevention and education are crucial to make sure that people are more resilient," she said.

The vaccination programme aims to protect children under one from measles, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, polio and tuberculosis, she explained.

Haiyan shattered the health system of the Eastern Visayas, destroying or damaging hundreds of hospitals, clinics and health centres. The Philippine Red Cross and its partners are gradually rebuilding or rehabilitating 64 of these facilities, reinforcing them against future typhoons and installing new medical equipment.

"That's the hardware," explained Aleksandre Mikadze, head of office at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Tacloban.

"What we realised after previous disasters is that you also need what we call the 'sofware component' - that's health tools and modules to underpin the dissemination of key health messages.

"That's why it's important to not just focus on rebuilding and repairing," he said.

Health recovery plan

The Philippine Red Cross health recovery plan, supported by the IFRC, covers more than 105,000 people, including facilities, equipment, community-based health promotion, first aid and psychosocial support.

One of its aims has been to train hundreds of health volunteers, like Cuayzon, to work with communities to prepare an action plan based upon detailed assessments, support the local government's efforts, encourage people to improve their lifestyle and prepare them for disasters.

It includes community assessments and mobilisation, first aid, water and sanitation training, disease prevention and health promotion.

The volunteers are taught how to use tools including flip charts and seasonal calendars to share information, and how to collect and analyse household data using mobile data collection.

The volunteers also report their progress to local health committees in their villages - known as barangay health committees - which include Red Cross representatives, local government, community members, and religious and community leaders.

In Abaca, dengue and schistosomiasis are among the main health threats, and community health workers teach villagers what they can do to guard against such diseases, as well as how to treat minor injuries.

Clean-up for safety and health

In Tacloban city, people in Kalipayan and six other districts have been busy cleaning up debris in the "Hope for Tacloban's Children" programme, set up by aid agency World Vision to provide children with safer environments.

These areas, known locally as barangays, are close to the seashore and were among the poorest in the city even before the disaster. They bore the brunt of Haiyan's ferocity. Many of residents lost loved ones and also their way of making money to support their families.

World Vision provided 461 community members with tools and clothing to commence a clean-up to remove remaining debris from the typhoon. They had to commit to four hours' work for 260 pesos ($5.50) per day.

"These communities are very poor and still in dire need of assistance and struggling to bounce back," said Jeremy Kilday, director of operations for World Vision’s Typhoon Haiyan response.

Dengue and diarrhoea are among major concerns for the slum dwellers due to contaminated and standing water close to their homes.

"A lot of children here get sick because of the water and all the rubbish," said Rosita Luyten, a barangay captain who heads community activities, as she crosses a small walkway connecting ramshackle houses on stilts.

The smelly water underneath the houses never drains away, she explained.

Staying healthy is also important because even though health care is free, medicines are not.

Richel Quiminales, a mother of seven, had to take her 11-month-old baby to hospital with vomiting and diarrhoea.

"Our baby was in hospital for two weeks and the only way we could pay for the medicines was by borrowing money and asking neighbours for help," she said.

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