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Experts: Psychic trauma a problem
Updated: 2005-01-03 00:44

Millions of people may have survived the deadliest tsunami in living memory, but many are so deeply traumatized it will take years for them to heal, if ever, medical experts said yesterday.

Lo Wing-lok, a Hong Kong doctor with Oxfam who is helping survivors in India, said survivors were in shock and utter despair in Tamil Nadu, the country's worst-hit area.

"The psychological trauma is very intense. People are sitting outside their destroyed homes with nothing left. Crying and weeping. It's a picture of despair," Lo said.

"I went to a village with 24 deaths, there was weeping and crying in every corner. It will take a very long time for them to recover completely, if at all," said the infectious disease expert who warned of likely epidemics of cholera and dysentery.

"Most of them are fishing folk. They don't know how to restart their livelihoods with their homes and fishing boats gone. Even if they were given back their boats, they are too frightened of the sea to go back, for at least the time being."

A 9.0 magnitude undersea quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra the day after Christmas sent tsunami slamming into Indonesia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other countries as far away as Africa, killing more than 145,000 people so far. Thousands more are missing.

At least five million people are displaced and many face the risk of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, Ecoli and salmonella in the very near term, doctors warn.

Equally insidious, though not as obvious, are the psychological scars that many survivors will live with for the rest of their lives.

Wounds too deep to see

Rescuers in Velankanni in India celebrated a miracle last Tuesday when 8-year-old Anthony Praveen sat up amid a pile of corpses that were about to be buried in a mass grave, the South China Morning Post reported yesterday.

The boy, who lost his parents and sister to the giant waves, was able to utter his name and address in hospital but has remained speechless since. Doctors there have diagnosed him as suffering severe trauma, with one classifying it as a case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychiatrists say survivors of major disasters will suffer emotional turmoil and grief for months, even years. Those who need to return to making a living would be better able to cope.

"For those who don't need to worry about survival, they may go deeper into emotional turmoil and between 15 and 20 per cent (of survivors) develop PTSD," said Tsang Fan-kwong, a specialist in psychiatry at Hong Kong's Castle Peak Hospital.

Some symptoms of PTSD include nervousness, insomnia and excessive worrying. Sufferers also re-enact scenes of the catastrophe in their minds and avoid anything which reminds them of the disaster, such as going to the beach or watching television news. People with severe PTSD fall into depression.

PTSD could occur immediately or take place years later, after the victim has handled problems in the aftermath of the crisis.

Thanks to the body's natural healing powers, most survivors would be able to heal themselves and recover.

But Tsang said those with PTSD will require professional help -- such as counselling, psychotherapy and making sure they have enough sleep -- to stave off depression.

"Depression is a very debilitating and painful disorder and sufferers will not be able to carry on with their daily activities. If not recognized and treated, 15 per cent (of those with depression) may commit suicide," Tsang warned.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government is sending counsellors into a few schools to help the classmates of students missing.

Eight students, four from international schools and one teacher, were confirmed missing after the catastrophe.

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