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Dissecting Disaster

Shehzad Noorani

Dissecting Disaster (continued)

Early Warning Systems

Although countries riven by civil strife, refugee crises or war take up much of the Center’s attention, it is well acquainted with natural disasters. A five-year Center project involving several countries in East Africa has encouraged public health professionals there to develop their own plans for local disaster preparedness and response.

“There are a lot of floods and landslides in these countries,” explains Daniela Lewy, MPH ’06, a research associate for the Center who spends part of each year in East Africa working on the project. “And they are increasing, possibly because of climate change.” Lewy and Center personnel train district-level public health practitioners to assess their country’s risk for disasters and develop action plans for dealing with them. They make sure that those practitioners, who are also teachers at public health schools, have some link to national ministries, so that government policymakers take their plans seriously.

Last spring, when landslides were scarring the faces of mountains and killing villagers in eastern Uganda’s Bududa district, Lewy’s project intersected with another one run by Shannon Doocy, PhD ’04, an assistant professor in International Health and at the Center. Students from Lewy’s East African program and others began to devise inexpensive ways to measure shifts in hillsides that could portend landslides nearby. “We taught people how far apart to place two poles on a hill,” she says. “If the [poles] move a certain distance apart, that’s a sign of instability. It’s something that local people can use.”

Doocy’s group had traveled to Uganda to see if studying the terrain could somehow foretell landslides—a lifesaving early warning system of sorts that could allow people to move to safe ground before disaster strikes. A newly developed (and decidedly higher-level) technology that utilizes geographical data taken during space shuttle missions, along with a topographical mapping scheme that was aided by global positioning satellites, allowed them to find a crack in a village hill adjacent to a camp for people displaced by another landslide. “We warned the local authorities of the risk and advised them that if there was further change in the slopes, they should move people out,” says Doocy, who adds that landslides did indeed occur nearby later.

Many who have come to study in the School of Public Health enroll in the master’s-level Health in Crisis concentration, which Doocy co-directs. But the Center’s reach extends beyond Hopkins students, thanks to the Health Emergencies in Large Populations course, run by Burnham.

Craig Jaques, now a program strategy consultant with a U.S. Department of Defense agency that prepares health professionals for disaster response, took the intensive three-week course at Hopkins during the summer of 2009. Since then, he has trained dozens of people from Southeast Asia on how to construct health and medical programs during an emergency—including lessons he learned during his time at Hopkins.

“The HELP course broadened my views on the international response to disasters and got me thinking about how to deal with public health concerns,” Jaques says.

Now he regularly teaches other HELP alumni. “They utilize the course’s tools and knowledge to train others," he adds. "They respond with confidence to health emergencies.” Recent HELP graduates have gone on to devise health systems in strife-torn Somalia, develop preventive health programs in rural Pakistan and run HIV programs in South Sudan.

Yet others, like Paul Perrin, a doctoral candidate in International Health, come to the School to study so that they can continue their work amid disasters. Perrin, formerly a missionary for the Mormon Church, began disaster work when he was 19, helping victims of an Armenian earthquake.

Now 30, Perrin believes he and others are on the cusp of some exciting findings. “It’s a young field,” he says. “Most of the research done by NGOs isn’t robust because they measure their own idea of success. They’ll ask people who get their services what they think of their work but often don’t do the same for those who haven’t. They don’t use population-based methodologies. That’s the strength of what Hopkins does.”

Biostatistics and epidemiology classes give students a broad knowledge base with which to construct studies and work them out in the field, he adds. “Hopkins teaches you that this is a scientific discipline above all, one that takes a hard look at individual disasters and how they are dealt with.”

In Haiti, Perrin personally trained locals to do interviews in the field, overcoming a language barrier (he doesn’t speak Creole). He says that gathering such data from the 60 sites that Center personnel systematically chose is vital in improving NGO performance. “I suspect many relief groups think we’re looking over their shoulders, but I also think they’ll be very interested in our findings,” he says. “When you get down to it, they really want to do the right thing.”

Comments

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  • rofingi

    indonesia 09/14/2011 02:40:40 PM

    nice news,,,, like this

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