Haiti tragedy shakes up SA’s emergency response planning

Chris Bateman


The tragic Haitian earthquake that claimed at least a quarter of a million lives this January and devastated that island has provided a sobering wake-up call for volunteer South African emergency medics who pitched in to help. South Africa’s response was fragmented, with two NGOs operating separately and independently. The lessons learnt have led to a joint initiative between the largest emergency academic medicine divisions in the country.
Six of South African’s top disaster and emergency medics propose creating a single, all-inclusive, cross-sector, multi-disciplinary medical team that is properly trained, equipped and prepared to respond to local and international disasters.
The main weaknesses identified in South Africa’s bid to help Haitians were the use of commercial flights, limiting the timely arrival of essential tools (including medical oxygen not being permitted on such flights), the lack of pre-departure briefings, no emergency evacuation plan or formal trauma debriefing sessions, and inappropriate food and clothing.
The experts insist that a prerequisite for ‘deploy-ability’ to any disaster area in future is that all volunteers complete the new International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) course. The group, who penned an original article for the August edition of the SAMJ (‘Haiti: The South African perspective’),1 consists of some of the country’s most respected and experienced working emergency medics. They question the efficacy of responding to disasters ‘halfway across the world’, arguing that as a developing country South Africa’s contribution to settings such as Haiti, where the 12 January earthquake left 1.1 million homeless and 300 000 severely injured, was ‘often miniscule when compared with that of Western countries’.

Author's affiliations

Chris Bateman, HMPG

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Haiti, earthquake, emergency response

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2010;100(9):552-553.

Article History

Date submitted: 2010-08-03
Date published: 2010-09-07

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