[PHOTO -The country averages 20 typhoons a year -Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN]

 MANILA, AUGUST 11, 2012 (PHILSTAR) By Sheila Crisostomo – With its geographic location and weak regulations, the Philippines has the complete ingredients for disaster and emergency situations, the Department of Health (DOH) said here yesterday.

According to Susan Juangco of the DOH-Health Emergency Management Service, the Philippines is vulnerable to disasters primarily because it is located along the typhoon belt. “Every year, we experience 22 typhoons. For this year, we have not had any typhoon yet,” she said in the Covering Disasters 101 media seminar organized by the DOH here.

Aside from this, the country is also situated along the Pacific Ring of Fire and is sitting on top of two tectonic plates, making it susceptible to earthquakes.

Juangco added that since the Philippines is one of the countries with the longest coastlines, it is also vulnerable to tsunami which comes after an earthquake.

The country is also teeming with 352 volcanoes, 22 of them active while 27 others are potentially active.

Juangco said the Philippines’ vulnerability to emergency situations is aggravated by weak regulations on land transportation, aviation and maritime industries and inadequate prevention and response system.

She cited for instance fires, which she said can be due to illegal electrical connections and non-observance of building codes.

Juangco also cited the country’s inability to properly address oil spill because of weak shipping regulations and lack of equipment for chemical emergency and unclear cleanup policy.

“We may not be able to prevent typhoons (or other natural disasters) but we can mitigate their impacts through our response (system),” Juangco said.

She, however, said that the country’s situation may change with the passage of Republic Act 101211 or the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

“This law is intended to institutionalize disaster management in the country. We are hopeful that through this law, we’ll be able to prevent disasters or emergency situations that are preventable while we can mitigate the impact of those that are not preventable,” Juangco told The STAR.

Before, efforts were more focused on the response aspect of disasters.

“But the law has four pillars – preparedness, response, rehabilitation and recovery. So we will now be able to cover all aspects – from prevention and mitigation to helping the victims (rebuild their lives). We will do this through the coordinated efforts of (all government and private sector agencies), particularly the local government units,” Juangco said.


Getting the message out during disasters

[PHOTO -PHILIPPINES: Texting help and health in disaster response Photo: David Swanson/IRIN]

MANILA, 17 July 2012 (IRIN) - The Philippines looks set to expand its rapid monitoring system, based on mobile phone text messaging, to lessen the number of deaths and improve emergency response times.

With over 7,000 islands and more than 100 million people, the archipelago experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year, with stronger storms in recent years.

Surveillance in Post Extreme Emergencies and Disaster (SPEED), a project supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), uses SMS / text messages on mobile phones or the internet to alert emergency health officials to dangerous situations and send them health information, and receive data on health conditions in communities and reports of disaster damage.

The system was set up in 2009 on a trial basis after the Philippines, one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, was battered by back- to-back typhoons. Ketsana dumped enough rain to flood more than 80 percent of the capital, Manila, when major rivers and waterways burst their banks, swallowing entire urban communities in the worst flooding in recent history.

Exactly a week later, Parma ravaged the northern Philippines, triggering landslides and floods. More than 1,000 people were killed, 600,000 were displaced, and up to 10 million were affected by the storms, which caused an estimated US$43 billion in economic damage, according to the World Bank.

As emergency workers struggled to help people in desperate conditions, an outbreak of deadly waterborne diseases, including Leptospirosis began ravaging survivors, infecting more than 3,380 people and killing 20.

"It was a wakeup call for us. It caught many health workers off-guard, because they too were victims of the flood," said Carmencita Banatin, head of the Emergency Management section of the Health Department. "So we decided to do something and improve monitoring in post-disaster [circumstances] and asked the WHO to help us put in place a surveillance system through text messaging."

WHO sent its Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network to Manila, which worked with local officials to establish the initial phase of SPEED, covering flood-affected areas. "We realized that in the aftermath [of a disaster]… health managers needed to make quick decisions based on verifiable data on the ground to prevent more death from disease outbreaks," Banatin said.

SPEED can be activated within 24 hours of any disaster, including displacement caused by conflict, and works by tapping into the vast mobile phone network in the Philippines - official statistics say almost everyone has a handset. Where mobile phone systems are down, field reporters can use radios to send in statistics for their area, she said.

Health and emergency “reporters”, usually disaster response or health officers at the barangay (the smallest administrative area) or municipal level, fan out to community health facilities, hospitals and evacuation centres to check on reported cases of the most common post-disaster diseases.

This data and other information is then sent via mobile phone - using codes and formats specially designed for the system - to the central SPEED server based in Manila, where it is collated and analyzed before making the information accessible to emergency officials at all levels of government.

The system also sends immediate "notification alerts" to the mobile phones of designated recipients when the number and distribution of specified health conditions go over a specified threshold, "signifying the potential development of a possible outbreak or epidemic, thereby allowing officials to respond quickly," Banatin noted.

WHO country representative in the Philippines, Soe Nyunt-U, said access to the SPEED website would be restricted to emergency officials who could make vital decisions, including mayors, governors, members of the executive department and emergency relief agencies. They would be able to pull up tables, graphs and maps to help them analyze trends and deploy help where it was most needed.

"The principle is to prevent more deaths and diseases. Disasters do happen, and deaths and injuries at the time of the incident, but through this system we would be able to prevent outbreaks that could lead to more fatalities," Soe Nyunt-U told IRIN.

He said the nationwide SMS-based surveillance system was unique to the Philippines, but other countries in the region were beginning to study the module. Localized surveillance systems had been put in place after major disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami that struck Aceh in Indonesia, but they were abandoned when the situation normalized.

"This is a very good example of harnessing technology for a noble cause," said Soe Nyunt-U. "With this tool, we can prevent outbreaks, prioritize movements, and health and emergency officials can pinpoint where to deploy help with immediacy.”


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved