Shaun Cleaver (right) in Haiti.
Shaun Cleaver (right) in Haiti.

What happens in disaster zones after media attention fades?

The recent natural disasters in Chile, Haiti and now China have demonstrated the importance of vulnerable countries having a good health structure in place, and physical therapists quickly available. As the countries begin to rebuild themselves, WCPT and other organisations and individuals are highly aware that more could be done to ensure that countries are better prepared for earthquakes and other disasters.

The process of moving from emergency measures to long-term rehabilitation is already beginning in Haiti. June Hanks, Director of the Advantage Programme, which has been providing rehabilitation services in Haiti since 2001, reports that plans are progressing to make artificial arms and legs at the Advantage workshop, training people who can work all over Haiti in one system to make and repair limbs.

“We plan to make the limbs in Haiti rather than try to modify a limb made for someone else and forcing it to fit a uniquely shaped limb,” she says.

Shaun Cleaver, a Canadian physiotherapist who is now Coordinator of Rehabilitation Services Development at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, says the earthquake has exposed glaring gaps in the country’s rehabilitation infrastructure.

“There were maybe a dozen physiotherapists in this country of nine million before 12th January. Only half of them had jobs. The current initiatives, that have infused energy and financial resources into physiotherapy, need human resources that we don’t have. There is currently a move to train rehabilitation professionals, but many of these will not yield products for another four to five years. We are asking the question: when the earthquake funds run dry and the media attention has evaporated, will there still be physiotherapy services and jobs?”

There needs to be, he says, a long-term international effort to help Haiti build lasting solutions – infrastructure, capacity and leadership. “We need to create rehabilitation services that are consistent with the realities of the country. High-cost and professionally driven solutions will not be sustainable here, if the desire of the profession is to meet the needs of the people, it must realise that this includes services in rural areas where the optimal providers will not be highly educated or highly remunerated. The creation of a physiotherapy association that works towards serving the people of this country would certainly help.”

WCPT is aware that physical therapy is not always first in the minds of politicians and aid agencies when it comes to preparing for, or responding to, disasters. It is gathering materials on disaster management and a section of its website will provide resources and information on disaster management for physical therapists.

Brenda Myers, WCPT Secretary General, says the issue will be discussed further at WCPT’s North America Caribbean Region conference this month (April) – Haiti lies within the region and neighbouring countries have been very engaged in providing support. “Already WCPT has posted information on its website from international organisations who are seeking physical therapists to work in disaster zones, as well as links to resource material. We now want to actively expand online resources about physical therapists and disaster management - to help spread expertise, and to raise awareness of the profession’s potential contribution. We’d like member organisations to contact us if they have material they feel could be included on the website, or if they know of people with expertise in this area.”

The new WCPT disaster management policy will cover natural, technological and pandemic disasters. It will set out the place of physical therapy, the need for coordinated approaches, the role of national physical therapy organisations, the need for long-term planning as well as immediate relief, and the demands on physical therapists entering disaster zones.