From left: AUC Executive Dean Dr. Heidi Chumley, Governor Eugene Holiday, his wife Marie-Louise Holiday-Hazel and Health Minister Emil Lee.
CUPECOY–American University of the Caribbean (AUC) School of Medicine launched its Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine (CCDM) on Friday during the opening ceremony of the first International Conference on Disaster Medicine and Hurricane Resilience held at its campus in Cupecoy.
The conference continues until March 11. The Center’s primary focus will be on helping professionals responsible for healthcare delivery, disaster preparedness, emergency response, and medical education to prepare better for disasters.
AUC Executive Dean Dr. Heidi Chumley said the overarching purpose of the conference is to support the momentum of St. Maarten, which took a direct hit from the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic and has come back better, stronger, and more resilient, and to use the dedicated effort in the country to impact not only St. Maarten but the rest of the Caribbean and beyond.
“This is an academic medical conference and it looks a lot like many that I have attended and that many of my colleagues and a lot of our speakers have attended over the years. But this one is really special in that we are taking this opportunity to launch AUC’s new Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine,” she said.
The CCDM has been established to serve as a centre of excellence focused on education, research, and capacity-building to help enable the islands of the Caribbean to enhance their ability to prepare for, manage, and recover from disasters affecting life and wellbeing.
Chumley said she is a family physician educated and trained in the United States, and now the leader of a medical school that annually produces about 300 new physicians for the United States (US) healthcare system, most of whom will practice in areas of primary care.
She said that for physicians and many healthcare professionals, when a disaster strikes, “people will look to you. It’s your duty to look back at them and let them know that you are prepared to step into the situation and help. And there is a great need for help.
“Today, we hear almost daily about natural disasters, man-made accidents, mass violence, infectious outbreaks, terrorist attacks, and more. In fact, you don’t need the disasters we create on our own to stay busy. The natural calamities are quite enough.
“Hurricanes, monsoons and typhoons here in the Caribbean, up the Atlantic coast of the US and reaching far inland. Bangladesh and Vietnam. Flooding in China, Sierra Leone, and India. Earthquakes in Mexico and Iran. Volcanoes erupting in Bali and Hawaii. And finally, wildfires in California – and now flooding.”
She said there is a need to understand that many persons are affected by disasters. She alluded to the Annual Disaster Statistical Review, between 2006 and 2015, which shows that 224 million people are affected by disasters each year.
“Assume a world population of about seven billion and that’s roughly three per cent of the population. Every year. Need context for that number? There are about 37 million people living with HIV/AIDS. During influenza epidemics, approximately five million people have severe illness.
“In health care, we have our professional societies that define aspects of each profession. I am most familiar with my own profession, so let me tell you what the American Medical Association states about a physician’s responsibilities in a time of disaster:
“‘Whether at the national, regional, or local level, responses to disasters require extensive involvement from physicians individually and collectively. Because of their commitment to care for the sick and injured, individual physicians have an obligation to provide urgent medical care during disasters. This obligation holds even in the face of greater-than-usual risks to physicians’ own safety, health, or life.’
“We have people in this room who embrace that obligation. We can help them prepare for that responsibility.”
Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba Dr. Erica Wheeler said PAHO sees the establishment of the centre as an important gap to be filled in addressing the competencies of physicians in the Caribbean which has not been systematically addressed to date.
“The devastation caused by [Hurricanes – Ed.] Irma and Maria puts St. Maarten in a good position to be the springboard for such a course not only for other Dutch territories in the Caribbean but also for English-speaking countries in the region, based on practical experience,” Wheeler said.
“PAHO is aware that other Caribbean academic institutions have a role to play and this needs to be explored in this partnership, such as the UWI [University of the West Indies] which is an important partner for PAHO/WHO. …
“I look forward to our collaboration to address the challenges that will be faced by health professionals in the region and in this instance to physicians, in this era of climate change. We cannot shy away, but face the need to take action. I look forward to partnership with the Center on Disaster Medicine and Hurricane Resiliency.”
Wheeler said WHO takes a comprehensive approach to all aspects of emergency management: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, readiness, response, and recovery. WHO supports member states to build their capacities to manage the risks of outbreaks and emergencies with health consequences.
“When national capacities are exceeded, we assist in leading and coordinating the international health response to contain outbreaks and to provide effective relief and recovery to affected populations,” Wheeler said.
PAHO’s Plan of Action for Disaster Risk Reduction 2016-2021 builds on the work with PAHO member states to reduce risks in the health sector and to strengthen their capacity to ensure full operation of the health system and services in times of emergencies or disasters.
“The purpose of the plan developed by the countries of the Americas is to continue strengthening disaster risk reduction in order to prevent deaths, diseases, disabilities, and the psychosocial impact of emergencies and disasters through people-centred actions and cross-cutting approaches,” Wheeler said.
“As part of the prioritisation exercise led by countries, they have been identifying areas for PAHO/WHO’s assistance and member states have identified two areas for emergencies and disasters: Immediate response in the form of rapid detection, assessment and response to health emergencies and, in the post-disaster phase, strengthened country capacity for an all-hazards health emergency and disaster risk management for a disaster-resilient health sector.
“As part of the latter we are seeking to develop a regional culture of prevention, preparedness, and mitigation of health emergencies and disasters that incorporates the rights and contributions of individuals, families and communities. Preparing physicians to play their role is a critical part of building this capacity.”
Governor Eugene Holiday said natural disasters, in various forms, strike indiscriminately around the world, leaving behind a trail of severe physical and emotional damage.
“We must therefore continue to build hurricane resiliency; that is, we must continue to build our national physical infrastructure and institutional and human capacity to effectively prepare for, withstand and recover quickly from the effects of natural disasters. With that in mind it is imperative that we draw from and build on the lessons of our experiences with disaster management in general, and disaster medicine in particular,” Holiday said.
He was encouraged to see representatives of a wide variety of nations in the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe gathered in St. Maarten for the conference.
“Experience shows that natural disasters in general, and in the Caribbean in particular, take on regional and international dimensions requiring close cooperation and coordination between countries.
“The attendance of representatives of countries in the region and with close links to the region has the potential to strengthen cooperation and coordination and is testimony that our people have a common interest in disaster preparedness and building hurricane resilience, a fact which the AUC and the Harvard Medical Faculty physicians recognise with the organization of this conference and the establishment of the Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine,” Holiday said.
Based in St. Maarten, the CCDM will be operated by AUC in cooperation with Harvard Medical Faculty physicians of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts, and in close coordination with Caribbean experts.
AUC is part of an alliance of Adtalem Global Education institutions which also includes Ross University School of Medicine in Barbados, Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts, and Chamberlain University School of Nursing in the United States.