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When A Disaster Strikes, Good Intentions Can Be Harmful

How the World Health Organisation is learning from Haiti's mistakes.

12/10/2016 11:09 AM AEDT | Updated 14/10/2016 2:13 PM AEDT
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Interview: Cayla Dengate. Shot and Edited: Emily Verdouw

It's a special type of person who can remain calm in the aftermath of an earthquake or typhoon. Who will put their hand up to be the first into a city devastated by a tsunami, and will meet the eye of critically injured people on the worst day of their lives.

These people are resourceful, flexible and highly trained, but that doesn't stop well meaning groups with no medical experience from also flying themselves into a disaster zone.

In Haiti's 2010 earthquake, the Institute for Social and Economic Development reported dentists were undertaking amputations while an Alliance for International Medical Action study published in journal PLos Currents found 79 percent of amputees did not want to undergo amputation if it could have been avoided.

Allison Shelley / Reuters
Much of Port-au-Prince in Haiti was destroyed by an earthquake that killed around 250,000 people.

UN peacekeepers were said to have played a role in introducing cholera to Haiti, that killed more than 9000 people.

UC Berkeley's School of Public Health found almost two-thirds of the surgeons who volunteered in Haiti had no prior disaster experience.

World Health Organisation emergency medical team initiative technical adviser Flavio Salio told HuffPost Australia that Haiti was a wake-up call.

"I think the turning point was Haiti 2010 in which teams were just going without following any standard both in terms of quality of care as well as principals in part when you think about medical and ethical principals," Salio said.

AOL
Flavio Salvio said the WHO wanted a new system to verify emergency medical teams.

It was the beginning of a new global Emergency Medical Teams verification, which has now brought Salio to Australia to see if our Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AusMAT) warrant the highest level of accreditation -- the EMT 2.

In the tropical capital of Darwin, the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre is showing Salio through a full hospital with surgical abilities set up in tent-like shelters at the showground.

The humid build up and relentless sun doesn't bother the logisticians -- they've set this field hospital up in the shattered remnants of an airstrip after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines, while AusMats have been deployed to battle dengue outbreaks in the Solomon Islands, floods in Pakistan, cyclones in Fiji and more.

National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre
An operation in the field in Tacloban, the Philippines.

As Minister for International Relations and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told HuffPost Australia, "It's like a neighbourhood -- we've got the biggest house in the street. Therefore if something happens in the neighbourhood you go out and help".

Touring the facilities, Salio and his team were no doubt impressed, but it was the individuals that showed him AusMATs should be among four emergency centres in the world verified to serve ethically and effectively after a disaster.

"They apply the principle of humanitarian response when they go into a disaster setting -- to open care to all the population affected without any distinction of politics, religion and so on."

Spanish Aid water, sanitation and hygiene adviser Jorge Durand was also in Australia to learn from Australia's verification process.

He told HuffPost Australia international aid was not a place for professional jealousy.

"Sharing knowledge is basic for humanitarian workers -- that's our basic principal," Durand said.

"We need to share because in the end, we are all working for the same aim.

"We are not just developing our professional capacity, it's more that you're trying to be better, so you can do better for the people you help."

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