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On the Ground in Pakistan with Sonia Walia – International Medical Corps Regional Coordinator – South Asia

Simply reaching people marooned by floodwaters is the biggest challenge for relief workers assisting victims of the unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, according to International Medical Corps’ Regional Coordinator for South Asia, Sonia Walia.

Walia, who recently deployed to Pakistan to oversee International Medical Corps’ emergency response in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, recounted the main priorities and challenges facing the organization during my recent conversation with her.

How is International Medical Corps responding in the flood-affected areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province?

Walia: We were on the ground immediately after the floods struck in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to respond to the basic health needs of the people. We provide both emergency health care and important information to the flood victims on how to prevent outbreak of diseases. Our psychosocial support teams are also working closely with the affected communities to relieve the psychological distress of the flood victims.

With the state of health education very limited in the flood-hit provinces of Pakistan, what plans has International Medical Corps developed to promote health education and create awareness among the flood survivors about common diseases? 

Walia: Part of International Medical Corps’ primary health care work includes health and hygiene education. All of our mobile teams include health educators, who provide education sessions on the benefits of following appropriate hygiene practices. This is not only about preventing common diseases, but also about following good health practices in general.

According to Pakistani government and United Nations estimates, there are over 50,000 pregnant women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. What challenges do they face now and what challenges could they face in the aftermath of the flood disaster?

Walia: Health facilities that existed before the floods in many cases no longer exist. Pregnant women have had to move with their families to higher ground to escape the rising flood waters. Because they have left their communities and all that is known to them, they have no idea where to seek antenatal or post natal care. They do not know where to deliver. They may not have clean supplies for their delivery. Moreover, those pregnant women whose delivery should be conducted in a hospital because of possible complications may not have access to a hospital. That can very quickly become a danger to the life of both the mother and the expected child.

Do you believe the lack of female doctors and female health professionals in the government-run hospitals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hampers relief efforts due to cultural concerns? If so, what role can International Medical Corps play to address the shortfall?

Walia: Female doctors and female health professionals are needed, especially for reproductive health services. A shortage of skilled female professionals in this area is a significant obstacle to providing assistance to pregnant women. International Medical Corps teams include female health workers and female doctors and we try to keep female doctors in most of the clinics. International Medical Corps always supports the district level hospitals in emergencies, providing female doctors and nurses to support the gynecology wards, much as it did in Swat during the recent conflict there. Still, getting a female doctor in these areas is always a big challenge.

When do you think International Medical Corps would be able to extend its relief activities to flood hit southern Pakistan?

Walia: We plan to respond within the coming days by offering primary health care and instruction on maintaining good hygiene in these very difficult conditions. We also plan to establish diarrheal treatment centers.

What challenges do you foresee International Medical Corpse could encounter in the vast plains of Sindh, which has a vastly different geography than the more mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

Walia: The greatest challenge will simply be gaining access to people due to the high level of water that remains in these areas.

The population of women and children is greater in Sindh than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. What are the public health challenges when water recedes in the two provinces?

Walia: The most common diseases in the flood hit areas are watery diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, skin and eye infections and malaria. There is also the possibility of other waterborne diseases, such as typhoid and hepatitis if clean water and proper sanitation are not available to the flood victims.