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Good Intentions Don't Always Help Disaster Victims Immediately After the Disaster

Washington, DC, September 12, 2003 (PAHO)—Destructive natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are not only big news, but often generate immediate and massive donations by well-intentioned people.

Killer hurricanes strike the Caribbean and Central America. Catastrophic earthquakes hit Chile and Mexico. Deadly volcanoes erupt in Colombia and Ecuador. The first reaction: People donate hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of clothing, medicines and even food convinced it will give immediate help to the affected countries.

Is it the right thing to do? It seems so, but in reality it takes a lot of time to classify donations and they are expensive to transport.

"One of the myths about donations," said Dr. Jean-Luc Poncelet of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), "is that people believe that because they have seen an image on television that is describing a very difficult situation that they have to send assistance that same day. The reality is that external assistance, especially donations in kind, will reach the affected population too late."

Poncelet manages PAHO's Program on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief.

"One of the most common myths is the belief that any kind of assistance will be immediately useful for the affected countries," Poncelet said in an interview. "The reality is that assistance provided from the outside is useful in some cases, but it is more often useful to address needs that come up several days and months after the event. External assistance has to be well guided."

PAHO's guide for effective disaster aid discourages sending--among other things--things like used clothing and shoes, household foods, household medicines or prescriptions, blood and blood derivatives.

What, then, should people send and how can they help? Cash!

"We encourage people to make donations in cash and to channel that through serious organizations that have a foot in the affected country or that can provide assistance that is available in the country," Poncelet said.

"The myth is to believe that a country doesn't have enough supplies for the people who have been affected by a disaster. Usually, in case of natural disasters, there are enough supplies in a country to feed the persons and provide them emergency assistance."

Here are some of the myths and realities about natural disasters and their impact on public health, from PAHO's emergency preparedness program:

Myth: Any kind of international assistance is needed--and it is needed immediately.

Reality: A hasty response not based on an impartial evaluation may only add to the chaos that follows a natural disaster. It is better to wait until real needs have been assessed.

Myth: Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of medical background are needed.

Reality: Only medical personnel with skills not available in the affected country may be needed. The local population almost always covers immediate lifesaving needs.

Myth: The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for its own survival.

Reality: On the contrary, many people find new strength during an emergency. Example: Thousands of volunteers usually appear spontaneously in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Myth: Things are back to normal within a few weeks.

Reality: The effects of a disaster tend to last for a long time. Disaster-affected countries usually use up much of their financial and material resources in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

Myth: Disasters are random killers.

Reality: No, they usually strike hardest at the most vulnerable groups--the poor, women, children and the elderly.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of its people. PAHO also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

For more information, video material, or photographs please contact: Daniel Epstein, Area of Public Information, (202) 974-3459, e-mail: epsteind@paho.org.