China / Innovation

Disaster trainers hail success of program

By Mark Hughes ( Updated: 2012-05-25 16:11

Staff at a center designed to train people how to cope with unexpected disaster are hailing the success of their program after no injuries were suffered when a small earthquake struck a village where they are operating.

The CERT-CUHK-Oxford University Center for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response said residents of Ma'an village in Sichuan followed their recommended procedures when the quake hit recently.

"They did as we instructed and no one was harmed," said CCOUC's director, Professor Emily Chan, who works from the School of Public Health, at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The center was established in March 2011 and is based on the technical expertise and network of the University of Oxford and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It focuses on academic research and training on disaster preparedness, relief and response in China. In addition, it facilitates and enhances disaster relief response and builds up the abilities of researchers and field workers through various accredited courses and seminars.

Ma'an is one of 10 villages selected for the center's work. All are in the most disaster-prone areas and where there are ethnic groups and are poverty-stricken.

"We also selected them because they have limited access to resources, limited language and limited capacity to help themselves," said Professor Chan. "We wanted to put together an evidence-based strategy for dealing with disaster mitigation. We will stay with the communities for three to four years. We teach disaster relief skills."

One element of preparation the center teaches is the putting together of a bag containing its owners identity card and medications he or she needs that should be put somewhere readily accessible.

As an example of how the unexpected can occur, Professor Chan cited the case of a 95-year-old man who was suffering chest pains after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. He had eaten no food for several days and then stuffed himself when emergency supplies arrived. His chest pains were caused by indigestion but his 72-year-old son suffered hypertension out of worry that it could be the prelude to a heart attack. He did not have his medication with him and spent three weeks in hospital while his father recovered quickly.

"So preparation can alleviate suffering. Knowledge is power," said Professor Chan.

Under the program, the center sends undergraduate and PhD students to stay in the villages to undertake the training and make observations.

"The whole point of field experience is to let students apply what they've learned from the textbooks. How do you do epidemiology and biostatistics when there's not even a map of the village? And what do you do if the households claim to have no household number?" These sorts of challenges are not uncommon in the Ten Village Oroject but, with a multidisciplinary team, there are always solutions to overcome them," said Professor Chan.

The center says non-Han Chinese constitute 8.4 percent of China's population and generally fare worse than the Han ethnic groups in terms of economic and health status. The Ten Village Project consists of three phases: a needs assessment phase, health education and program effectiveness evaluation.

The health needs assessment team adopts what is known in academic circles as the Green's model of situational analysis as a framework to assess the general characteristics, health status needs, health service availability, utilization of health-care, political context and existing as well as projected resources of target communities. Quantitative and qualitative methods such as household-based survey interview and focus groups interviews are used to assess the health needs.

The team also conducts environmental assessment, including the types of cooking fuel used, types of toilets adopted, sources of water and electricity supply as well as the location where farm animals are kept.

Health education campaigns take place at different locations in different villages. Health interventions sometimes have to take place outside the village mosque, inside schools or simply at a villager's house.

The center also conducts other needed health education for the local population in addition to disaster-preparedess. For example, teaching children about the importance of a balanced diet is critical as many of them will join the migrant workforce at a very young age, where food availability and variety drastically changes in the urban setting.

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