EXPERT COMMENT: International response to the Mexico earthquake

In light of Tuesday’s earthquake in Mexico, Professor Tony Redmond - director of The University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute - discusses what international assistance to the disaster may be required.

Until this week, it had been 32 years since Mexico City suffered its last major earthquake. That was of 8.0 magnitude, which was approximately tenfold greater than Tuesday’s 7.1 magnitude. Over 5000 people died, and outside assistance was offered and received.

Much has improved in the local, regional and international responses worldwide since then, particularly in strengthening the local capacity to respond. Mexico is no exception, and will have significant capacity to respond, fully supported by its neighbours and the Pan American Health Organisation’s (PAHO) disaster response.

It’s possible that specific outside help, beyond the region may not be asked for, but if it is, the medical help will be through the Emergency Medical Teams system at WHO/PAHO, coordinated though its Emergency Medical Teams Coordination Cell. This will embed with the national ministry of health, and through its online ‘virtual on-site operations coordination centre’, will liaise with those registered international teams who have indicated their willingness to deploy and with government, choose who is best suited to the needs they have identified.

This ensures that assistance is targeted on identified need, coordinated, and in the case of medical practitioners, that they are appropriately trained, qualified and can be officially authorised to practice in Mexico.

The WHO registration and classification system ensures minimum/core standards are adhered to and that all teams are fully self-sufficient, in order not to add a further burden to the affected country.

When thinking about what might be needed to assist, international teams must consider how long it will take to get there and become fully operational. This will shape the type of assistance they can give. For example, lifesaving surgery is done in the first few hours, so surgical assistance that takes days to arrive will be too late for this. However, it can be focused on the further management of complex injuries in the survivors if the local surgical capacity for this has been overwhelmed.

Rehabilitation is often overlooked, but providing this type of support can free up beds by facilitating the early discharge of patents and provide much-needed support to them and their families in their homes.

Any major disaster diverts health care personnel from their day-to-day tasks, but unrelated emergencies still continue to occur, and other non-disaster related health conditions still require care and treatment. Support to this less glamorous aspect of disaster response and maintaining essential emergency health care is still important to those affected.

When thinking about international search and rescue, bear in mind that most victims of earthquakes are rescued by their fellow survivors and some by local and regional teams. Very few are rescued by international teams, as it simply takes them too long to get there. There were hundreds of international search and rescue personnel who responded to the earthquake in Nepal - and they saved 13 people. Everyone else was saved by the Nepalese.

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