Doctor group may quit Japan if nuclear threat rises

VIENNA Thu Mar 17, 2011 4:09pm EDT

VIENNA (Reuters) - The Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctors group may pull its emergency team out of Japan if the threat from a stricken nuclear plant escalates, the head of its Japan section said on Thursday.

"We are monitoring the situation on an hourly basis. We have radiometers (radiation detectors) with each of our teams on the ground," Eric Ouannes said in an in-house interview that the aid organization released.

"As soon as we reach a level that could become unhealthy or dangerous for our teams, we will evacuate the team. We have the means to evacuate quite rapidly, evacuation routes have been identified, so yes, that's what we will do."

He said MSF teams did not have the expertise to treat illnesses caused by radiation.

"This is more the duty of the Japanese government and, from what we hear or read in the news, they are already trying to prepare for that."

While international attention has been focused on Japan's efforts to stop damage at the nuclear plant from spiraling out of control, a massive salvage and rescue operation is underway to help the millions affected by last week's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

The official death toll stands at less than 5,000 but thousands more are listed as missing. About 850,000 households in the north were reported to be without electricity and at least 1.5 million households without water.

The main health issue in the 20 or 30 evacuation centers MSF teams visited is chronic diseases among elderly people such as hypertension, cardiac diseases, and diabetes, he said.

"We have also seen some cases of hypothermia affecting people, as well as dehydration. But again, it's a limited number of cases compared to the vast number of people who have been displaced or who have lost their homes."

He also cited a lack of fuel, food and water, saying that blankets were the most urgent need.

MSF has 11 staff in Japan, according to its website.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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