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Stock enough medical supplies to save lives when disaster strikes

 Wreckage of burnt trucks and tankers after a gas explosion in Embakasi, Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The Embakasi gas explosion in Nairobi that claimed seven lives and injured hundreds of people was a wake-up call for us as a country in matters disaster preparedness.

Having been in Embakasi for several days with a team of medical experts from the Nairobi Hospital providing free medical and emergency support to hundreds of people who were affected by this blast, I am certain that now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions on how to tackle the challenges of today so that we shape the possibilities of tomorrow.

Among the many lessons we picked from the Embakasi gas blast is that disaster preparedness from a medical perspective is crucial for ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals and communities in the face of emergencies. A glaring gap witnessed in Embakasi was lack of sufficient medical supplies and equipment.

As a country, we need to emphasise the importance of maintaining adequate stocks of medical supplies and equipment, including first aid kits, medications, sterile supplies, personal protective equipment and medical devices such as defibrillators and oxygen tanks that can be set aside for disasters.

This should be accessed in a short duration in conjunction with probably the military or other private sector players to augment what the public health ecosystem has. Relevant authorities should always take stock of what all medical facilities in the country have to enable effective utilisation and mobilisation during disasters.

As a country, we need sound emergency response plans clearly outlining the steps to be taken in case of a medical emergency during a disaster.

This includes establishing communication channels, evacuation procedures, setting up emergency medical facilities and coordinating with local authorities and healthcare organisations within the disaster epicentre complete with a central command.

But this comes when a proper risk assessment has been done to establish the kind of potential risks that exist within the country such as floods, pandemics, fires, major road and train accidents, terrorist attacks, to name but a few.

The risk assessment should point out how these disasters could impact public health for proper planning because of resource and budgetary implications.

Another vital aspect in disaster management is provision of medical training sessions on basic medical skills such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, wound care and triage techniques.

Let us have programmes in place to educate individuals on how to recognise signs of common medical emergencies and when to seek medical help and this should include training in hospital incidence command system and Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Programme.

This helps people to work together despite coming from different working environments under one central command. The training should also highlight the importance of providing psychological support to survivors of disasters.

All healthcare providers in a disaster zone should be trained on how to offer emotional support, identify signs of distress and connect people with mental health resources to enable the healthcare professionals to debrief and at the same time give counselling services to the affected victims and families.

When healthcare professionals are empowered, proper care for disaster victims is guaranteed. The medics are able to develop plans for maintaining continuity of medical care for chronic conditions and ongoing treatments during and after a disaster.

This may involve setting up temporary clinics, providing telemedicine services or coordinating with neighbouring healthcare facilities.

Disaster management experts say that every challenge is an opportunity for excellence. When disaster strikes, it is not a time for blame game. It is a time when, as a nation, we should march together as one people.

It is a time to encourage collaboration between healthcare providers, emergency responders, government agencies, community organisations and volunteers to ensure a coordinated response to medical emergencies.

The post-disaster phase is equally important. Let us make it a culture to review and update our disaster preparedness plans based on lessons learned from past incidents and evolving best practices in emergency medicine. For instance, what lessons have we learnt from the Embakasi gas blast?

Who is compiling a report on what worked and what didn’t work? Are we encouraging feedback from stakeholders to identify areas of improvement?

Who will consume this report and how do we chart the nation’s path to the future in terms of a sound response to disasters?

A sound disaster preparedness strategy not only saves lives and money, it also speeds up the victims’ road to recovery.

Let us improve our local disaster preparedness and response capacity to prevent and reduce the impact of future disasters on our communities. 

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