Handling the medical disaster

January 13, 2010 3:42:53 PM PST
The disaster in Haiti has already mobilized one field of experts around the world. They specialize in disaster medicine, a field that has understandably grown rapidly since 9/11.

The experts say time and mobilization are two critical factors for dealing with the public's health in Haiti.

In a challenging disaster such as this earthquake, many things need to happen quickly and all at about the same time. The challenge can seem daunting.

"The response is going to be quite challenging and difficult," said Dr. Robert Bristow, Director of Disaster Medicine at the Columbia School of Public Health.

In this major disaster, the number of deaths and the collapse of infrastructure such as hospitals and electricity make the challenge seem gargantuan, and the infrastructure was shaky to start.

Bristow has trained personnel throughout the world to deal with disasters.

He says that mobilizing medical teams that can go in to set up field camps, hospitals and hospital ships to deal with the injured must be one of the first priorities.

"The teams need to be pretty self-sufficient. They have to go in well-trained, well-equipped. The military is best suited to respond quickly," he said.

For the mobilization, time is crucial so that emergency teams can deal with injuries and organize search and rescue missions.

Injuries most frequently seen after earthquakes are broken bones and painful crush injuries.

"The real problem is if they don't receive timely and appropriate medical treatment, they can cause multiple organ failures," Booker said.

At the same time -- and Bristow emphasizes it all must to happen simultaneously -- trained public health experts have to assess the needs for water, sanitation and electricity for extended care and prevention of infectious diseases such as malaria and measles.

"If you lost water and sanitation, often what happens is outbreaks of dysentery or diarrheal diseases that can further complicate the medical response," he said.

One of the first medical groups on site is the organization doctors without borders, who have been working there for years. They've got a field hospital and two surgical rooms on the way. Dr. Bristow emphasized that the scale of the disaster is so large that a military-like organization may be the only force organized enough to handle it.