May 22, 2008 / 7:02 AM / 11 years ago

Post-quake China on alert against disease

MIANYANG, China (Reuters) - More than 5,000 health workers have fanned out to disinfect China’s earthquake-hit villages, and doctors and nurses are stationed round the clock in refugee camps to try to prevent survivors from falling sick.

Soldiers disinfect the debris of a collapsed building in the earthquake-hit area of Hanwang, Sichuan province, May 22, 2008. REUTERS/Aly Song

At a sports stadium in Mianyang, housing more than 20,000 survivors, an old man watches his wife grimace after downing a small vial of traditional Chinese medicine.

“This is very good, it will stop you from getting sick now that your immune system is weak,” muttered a nurse as she waved the couple away.

A Mianyang health official stationed at the stadium said authorities were well aware of the risks involved in running such a densely populated camp but there were few other options.

The stadium refugees are from Beichuan, a town that was almost completely obliterated by the 7.9 magnitude quake which struck southwest China on May 12. The number of dead and missing has risen above 80,000.

Authorities made a snap decision to relocate Beichuan residents en masse when fears arose that a nearby dam could burst. They moved into the stadium two days after the quake.

Foreign health experts warned early on of diarrhea outbreaks if there was no clean drinking water, as well as infections from physical injuries and outbreaks of respiratory and other diseases associated with crowded and unsanitary living conditions.

China seems to have taken heed.

The State Food and Drug Administration said on its website it had ordered urgent shipping to the quake area of 9 million doses of vaccines for hepatitis A, Japanese encephalitis, hemorrhagic fever, cholera and other diseases.

“We are most worried about plague, so environmental hygiene is of top importance. Such a huge movement of people inevitably means that all sorts of viruses and bacteria move with them. We are also afraid of meningitis,” the Mianyang health official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

PLAGUE FEARS

Plague is carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas. Meningitis, an inflammation of membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, is caused by bacteria and viruses. It can be fatal without prompt treatment.

“We have isolated cases of diarrhea, heat exhaustion, fever and influenza. If there is an outbreak of any sort in this camp, which is conceivable because of the high density, medical staff are here to put a stop to it. Nothing can escape us.

“That’s why we have so many doctors here. They are here to prevent any trouble,” the official said.

Nearby, a large team of volunteers toting heavy canisters of pesticide and disinfectant patrol the camp every two hours.

“We disinfect blackspots like trash bins, toilets, drains and all shaded areas with bleach and pesticides. The areas exposed to the sun are okay, because ultraviolet light kills germs,” said the chief of the Public Health and Disease Prevention Team.

“When you have so many people in one place, you will have problems. People spit. We even find feces (outside toilets). These refugees may carry diseases, so it is very important to keep the whole place disinfected and as clean as possible.”

The sanitation workers perch on the back of trucks, spraying disinfectants as the slow-moving vehicles comb the streets.

They moved into a new school which opened on Wednesday in Mianzhu, making their entrance just as the school ground was packed with students, parents and teachers.

EVERYONE SPRAYED

“Everyone, there is no need to run away,” a voice roared over the loudhailer, as the men in white began spraying the ground and everyone there, including a Reuters journalist, liberally with disinfectants. They later fogged classrooms and the toilets with pesticides, enveloping the school in a thick white cloud.

Amid worries over clean drinking water, authorities and donors have sent huge bottled water supplies to refugee camps.

“At the beginning, we mostly saw physical injuries,” said director Zhou of the Dujiangyan traditional Chinese medicine hospital, now operating a clinic in a tent city in Dujiangyan.

“But now we are seeing internal problems and contagious diseases, for instance intestinal diseases,” said Zhou, flipping though a notepad in which each patient’s name and complaint was carefully recorded.

At the school opening in Mianzhu, army doctors moved in to check on every child.

“They have been through a disaster and have suffered bodily and mental trauma. They may look fine, but when we examine them, they have skin infections, rashes, abrasions. These must be tended to or they can turn into serious infections,” said Nie Yaling, a doctor with an army artillery division.

“Because of the sudden change in the living environment, these children would be under stress and their immune systems will be weakened. They will be more susceptible to all kinds of infections. So we need to watch them.”

Slideshow (8 Images)

Beichuan has been sealed off to ordinary people for fear of diseases spreading due to the large number of decomposing bodies, the Southern Metropolis newspaper reported. An “exit only” policy is in force, and only work crews are allowed to enter.

Teams of experts are sterilizing and disposing of animal carcasses to prevent the spread of disease, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

People have been warned to beware of rats, mosquitoes, flies and bugs and to clear away stagnant pools of water as the weather gets warmer.

Reporting by Lucy Hornby in Sichuan and Guo Shipeng in Beijing; Writing by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Roger Crabb

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