July 21, 2008
China 2008 © Kris Torgeson/MSF
An 8.0-magnitude earthquake devastated parts of southwestern China’s Sichuan province on May 12, affecting a densely populated area nearly as large as France.
Two MSF physicians and an administrative assistant who had been working in an HIV project in Nanning, Guangxi province, left that night for the provincial capital, Chengdu, and another emergency team was dispatched. While areas at the epicenter of the earthquake were inaccessible, MSF was able to start assessments of the immediate health needs in districts north of Chengdu. The teams found urgent needs for shelter, drinking water, and medical materials.
“In the assessed areas, a lot of houses have been destroyed and many people have lost their basic living conditions,” Philip Tavernier, the MSF head of mission in China, said on May 16. “We will, therefore, send blankets, plastic sheeting, and hygiene kits (soap, basin, towel, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) from Hong Kong to the affected area. These materials are meant to restore basic living conditions for about 20,000 people.”
The quake damaged many of Sichuan’s hospital facilities, and services were overwhelmed by the numbers of injured people. MSF donated surgical material, perfusions, and dressing material to several Chengdu-area hospitals and clinics.
A week after the quake, an estimated 32,000 had died and 5 million were homeless. As roads were cleared, the areas closer to the epicenter became more accessible. While the need for items such as food and water was largely being met, specialized medical care and equipment were still needed. An MSF team provided surgical and post-operative care at a temporary triage referral center in Guanghan city, treating some 70 wounded patients who were transported, many by helicopter, from some of the hardest-hit areas in the region.
MSF’s medical activities also included treating and providing expertise in “crush syndrome” at three hospitals in Chengdu and one in Guanghan. Crush syndrome is a potentially fatal condition in which muscle tissue damaged by severe internal injury may release massive quantities of toxins into the bloodstream and lead to kidney failure. Teams of MSF psychologists experienced in post-disaster trauma management also provided expertise and training to medical staff and started mental health programs in Pengzhou and Mianzhu cities.
The local, regional, and national response to the disaster was rapid and enormous, and by June, MSF was focused on filling the gaps. With millions still homeless, the need for shelter remained dire. In collaboration with the Chinese Red Cross, MSF had distributed 4,570 family tents by mid-June, with plans to continue.
MSF is still assisting with mental health activities in Sichuan province. Currently, MSF staff continues to assess mental health needs in hospitals and displaced persons camps, provide psychological support to quake victims in two referral hospitals, train medical staff on psychological first-aid, and conduct community outreach to raise awareness of common reactions to expect after experiencing an earthquake and self-help strategies for coping. MSF also continues to provide consultation to West China Hospital Mental Health Center in Huaxi city.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)