By Pat Muccigrosso, contributor
Map outlining the Pakistan districts affected by the flooding. Map courtesy of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs
September 10, 2010 - Flood waters finally started receding in early September but millions of Pakistanis are homeless; hundreds of thousands face disease and starvation. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 20 million people have been affected by the disaster. Flooding forced 4 million people from their homes. Millions more are in urgent need of food, shelter, clean drinking water and medical care.
Flowing from its northern border all the way to the Asian Sea, flood waters literally divided Pakistan right down the middle. The same flood that left millions homeless also destroyed clinics and medical facilities across the ravaged area. Despite the devastation, despite the urgent need for medical care, Margaret Aguirre said this tragedy is just not getting the same attention as the disaster in Haiti.
Margaret Aguirre, director of global communications for International Medical Corps, is working to garner more public awareness for the flooding in Pakistan. Photo credit: International Medical Corps
“Floods are different than earthquakes – the immediacy of the disaster is not as tangible to the general public,” said Aguirre, who is the director of global communications for International Medical Corps, a global, nonprofit organization which has been operating in Pakistan since 1984. “There hasn’t been as high a death toll – when you have 230,000 people killed versus 1,600, that doesn’t resonate as much for people. You don’t see buildings collapse; you don’t see the devastation immediately.”
Jacqueline Koch, senior communications officer for Merlin, uses social media to communicate information about the relief efforts. Photo credit: Merlin
Aguirre and members of other agencies turned to social media during the Haiti crisis; they are turning to social media again, said Jacqueline Koch, senior communications officer for Merlin Pakistan Emergency Response. “I know of one occasion where we tweeted the locations of our static clinics in Swat Valley in order for people to find our services as many villages are cut off.”
As an international aid agency that specializes in rapid medical response and rebuilding health systems, Merlin is also using social media for two very specific reasons, according to Koch. “We are using social media to raise the profile of our work in Pakistan and with the hopes of raising funds for the emergency response. Funding has stalled across the board and is slowing down the scale of the response we’d like to do.”
Aguirre said timing couldn’t be worse. “Flooding is a slow moving emergency. We’re very concerned that there will be a second wave of death where you have disease and outbreaks of cholera or malaria, acute respiratory infections. The danger of disease is really high so that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
The International Medical Corps psycho-social team provides counseling to flood victims in Government High School. Photo credit: International Medical Corps
This “slow-moving emergency” is being made more difficult by the fact that the disaster is unfolding in what has been considered a political hotspot for years. In fact, most U.S.-based aid agencies contacted for this story asked not to be quoted, but indicated that they are not putting American medical personnel on the ground in Pakistan. Citing political unrest as the reason, many are using Pakistani nationals to provide much needed medical care, a practice International Medical Corps put in place years ago.
“We have about 300 people in Pakistan. We have about the same number in Haiti,” explained Aguirre. “In the beginning in Haiti, most of the people that were flown in were American, whereas in Pakistan they are Pakistani nationals. The responses are the same in many ways in size but the people that are responding are local – in Pakistan.”
Muhammad Rafiq, M.D., project medical coordinator in Swat Valley, said there are many ways that healthcare professionals can get involved in relief efforts without having to leave the country. Photo credit: Merlin
Merlin also already had teams on the ground when this disaster struck, among them the team led by Muhammad Rafiq, M.D., project medical coordinator in Swat Valley. Rafiq said he’s not worried about the political situation or the military; they don’t present a risk for his team. The terrain of the country is another story.
“The terrain is a risk for the teams trying to reach those far flung areas. They could fall, they could have injuries. So the difficulties are to reach there and get medical supplies to the area,” said Rafiq who has been working in Pakistan for awhile. “As far as the military, the area is quite clear of militants. There are no security checks and we are comfortably operating in these areas.”
International Medical Corps staff treats displaced Pakistanis at mobile medical clinics throughout Kyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Photo credit: International Medical Corps
But Rafiq said there are several ways nurses and doctors can help, without leaving the United States. “They could hold refresher courses so they can train the medical teams to better cope with emergency situations and difficult situations in Pakistan.” Rafiq said their health care facilities “...are operating, but we could be more ready. The best way I could give them to help, they can train the native staff who are operating in these emergencies so their capacity could be increased.”
Rafiq also asked for help with “overcoming shortages of medicine, expensive medicines and shortages of medical supplies.” He suggested that fundraisers and donations are ways that stateside health care professionals and other concerned citizens could help with the aftermath of the worst monsoon floods to strike Pakistan in 80 years.
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