As Japan races to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the wake of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, frightening uncertainties abound. At least 10,000 quake-related deaths have been reported and it’s feared that the ultimate toll could be much higher. Amid a desperate search for survivors, millions more are without power, heat and water.
Another terrifying question is whether a meltdown can be averted and how serious rising levels of radioactivity are likely to be. Although officials don’t expect another Chernobyl, explosions been reported at the crippled reactors and 180,000 people have been evacuated. The Japanese government is distributing iodine tablets to help block a radioactive form of iodine that can otherwise build up in the thyroid, potentially causing thyroid cancer. Two other types of dangerous particles that a broken reactor can spew are strontium-90, which can trigger bone cancer and leukemia, and cesium-137, which raises cancer risk.
What’s ahead for Japan? While each natural disaster is different, lessons from earlier catastrophes offer insights about possible threats to the survivors’ health and safety that urgently need to be addressed now and in the future. Last year, John Howe III, MD, president of Project HOPE, a humanitarian relief organization, told me that after a massive earthquake, such as the one that devastated Haiti, leaving more than 1.5 million homeless, there are three distinct phases to disaster relief:
Along with restoring primary health services, housing, and clean water, another key long-term priority is providing mental health services, since earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters can leave even those who are physically unscathed with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder, marked by nightmares, terrifying flashbacks, panic attacks and other symptoms. Growing recognition of the emotional aftermath of a natural disaster or other mass trauma, such as a terror attack, has inspired an approach known as “psychological first aid” to help people feel safer and more secure, but it’s not yet known if it’s effective for preventing PTSD.
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