Background: The human impact of the tsunami that occurred on 26 December 2004 was enormous, with Indonesia bearing a huge proportion of the losses. The aftermath brought predictions of communicable disease outbreaks and widespread fear of epidemics. However, evidence from previous disasters due to natural hazards does not support all of these predictions. The objectives of this study were to: (1) describe the relative importance of infectious diseases and injuries as a consequence of a disaster due to natural hazards; and (2) identify key recommendations for the improvement of control and surveillance of these diseases during and after disasters.
Methods: A team from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters visited Jakarta and Banda Aceh from 11-23 January 2005, and collected data from the Central and Provincial Ministries of Health (MOH), the World Health Organization (WHO), and a field hospital from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Banda Aceh. The epidemiological profiles of diseases before and after the tsunami were compared. Cholera, tetanus, wounds and wound infections, acute respiratory infections, malaria, and dengue were included in this analysis.
Results: Certain diseases (e.g., cholera, malaria, dengue) are not always an immediate priority post-disaster. Rates of disaster-related health conditions requiring emergency response fell by half, and became negligible around four weeks after the precipitating events. Some conditions, such as aspiration pneumonia and tetanus, which normally are rare, require special preparedness for emergency personnel. In addition, resistant and rare pathogens are associated with disasters due to natural hazards in the tropics and require specialized knowledge for the rapid and successful treatment of related infections.
Conclusions: Within the first four weeks of a disaster, international humanitarian agencies in the health sector should start working with the MOH. The WHO surveillance system established immediately after the tsunami offers lessons for developing a prototype for future emergencies. Guidelines for tetanus and aspiration pneumonia should be included in disaster medicine handbooks, and humanitarian aid groups should be prepared to provide emergency obstetrics and post-natal services. Relief funding after naturally occurring disasters should consider funding sustainability. Donors should know when to stop providing emergency relief funds and transition to recovery/development strategies.