Japanese Tsunami Aftermath: Health Concerns

by Dr. Reeja Tharu on  April 2, 2011 at 12:52 PM Health In Focus
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On March 11, 2011, horror unfolded in Japan as the Tsunami struck the island nation and wrecked havoc along the country's north-eastern coast, washing away entire communities along the Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures.
Japanese Tsunami Aftermath: Health Concerns
Japanese Tsunami Aftermath: Health Concerns

The 9.0 magnitude Aid providers and health workers are facing a series of challenges in the wake of this natural disaster.

The tsunami has damaged supply routes and there are concerns about radiation leaks from a damaged nuclear power plant. It has been discovered that food, tap water and milk have been contaminated with iodine-131, a radioactive element.

Disaster toll

• The death toll has been estimated to have reached 8649 and approximately 12, 877 people are still reported missing. The real estimate is expected to be much higher.

• Water supply and power supply has been cut off in one million homes

• Thousands of buildings have been damaged; the health infrastructure has been particularly affected. Many hospitals have been damaged and a large number of health care providers are either among the victims or, are living in evacuation shelters.

• There has been a large number of elderly among the victims and survivors. Many are struggling in cramped conditions in shelters with insufficient water, food, heating or life-saving drugs.

• Hospitals have run out of drug stocks and medical supplies

• The extent of crisis resulting from the tsunami is yet to be fully comprehended.

Radiation Threat

The biggest fears have been those surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which is situated 150 miles north of Tokyo.

The cooling systems in all the six reactors within the plant have failed after the tsunami creating a meltdown scare and fear of radioactive material dispersion over a wide-spread area.

Round -the- clock work is being carried out to make the reactors safe.

Nevertheless, there has been evidence that traces of radiation has leaked into the atmosphere and has found its way into the food supply. This information is particularly alarming.

Government officials and international health experts have gone out of their way to reassure the public that RA- contaminated food need to be consumed in large amounts to pose a health risk.

As a precautionary measure the government has been distributing potassium iodide tablets—which can prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing the cancer -causing radioactive iodine-131.

This has also triggered a panic-buying spree in the USA and other places. The WHO has even advised the public on how to avoid radiation and when to take the pills. It has described the radiation scare as "serious" as it had spread well beyond the 30 km exclusion zone.

 Abnormally high quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137 have been found in tap water in Tokyo. Officials claim that the quantities are too small to act as a health-risk.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency "There is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine food is absorbed into the human body. If ingested, it can accumulate in and cause damage to the thyroid. Children and young people are particularly at risk."

Of greater concern is caesium-137, a radioactive element which posed a serious threat during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This RA material takes longer to break down and increases the chances of developing cancer.

Mental Health

Despite rehabilitation work, Japan's health system is ill-equipped to address long-term mental health problems triggered by the tsunami.

Thousands of survivors, including 100000 children, will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and will be in need of counseling to cope with their huge loss.

"Children we talk to say that whenever there's a tremor they are scared that something is going to happen", says Stephen McDonald of Save the Children, which now has a base in Sendai.

These children can develop behavioral or mental health problems unless they are offered counseling.


The stories of the disaster are relentless and they continue to pour in- such as those of the elderly with chronic diseases being deprived of treatment or diseases such as gastroenteritis and diarrhea being rampant everywhere.

 "For the people affected by the earthquake as well as the tsunamis, there are a number of issues: the cold, as well as a lack of food and water", said Eric Ouannes, general director of the Japan office of Médecins Sans Frontières. "And the most urgent need is blankets to protect the most vulnerable sections of the population against the cold."

An estimated 350 000 people, who are rehabilitating at the 2500 evacuation centers in Japan, have been provided with supplies of food, water, medicines, fuel and blankets.

Despite all this is that there are thousands who are out there who are waiting to be reached.

Source: Medindia

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