Sichuan earthquake: One year overview of MSF activities

On the 12th of May 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Sichuan Province in China, leaving more than 80,000 people dead and 370,000 people injured. The epicenter of the quake was Wenchuan located in the northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Some 90,000 buildings were collapsed and more than 10 million people left homeless. Up to 40 international staff and 16 national staff of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have worked in the affected areas to provide relief materials, medical care, and psychological support. Today, MSF continues to offer psychological care to the affected people in Sichuan.

Emergency Period
Distribution of Relief Materials

The first MSF teams arrived the day after the earthquake to conduct an assessment. The results of initial assessments revealed the urgent needs for shelters, drinking water, and medical materials. Most pharmacies in the area were destroyed by the quake and people faced a dire shortage of medicines. In collaboration with Sichuan Red Cross, MSF donated 4,310 family-size winter tents for more than 25,000 affected people and 300 kg of medical equipments and drugs in Mianzhu City, approximately 60 km east of the epicenter. MSF also donated 800 rolls of plastic sheeting and other basic items for the people in the affected areas.

Medical Care

While the local and national response was massive, the specialized medical care was needed for the injured people, as hospitals in the affected areas had been severely damaged and many were unusable. An MSF team including orthopedic surgeons provided support for a triage referral center in Guanghan city in the hard-hit prefecture of Deyang. Another MSF team of two nephrologists provided support to treat patients suffering from crush syndrome in three hospitals in Chengdu. MSF also provided clinical support to a hospital in Hanwang, Mianzhu city.

Psychological Care

After the earthquake, people lost their family members, saw others getting hurt or killed, witnessed massive destruction, and had to flee their homes. Many people were grieving over the loss of their loved ones and clearly in need of psychological care to regain a sense of balance in their lives. MSF psychologists provided psychological counseling to the victims of the quake in a hospital in Chengdu and Guanghan. During the emergency period, MSF psychologists offered “psychological first aid”, which includes active listening, conveying compassion, encouraging social support, and screening for more severe psychological problems.

Post-Emergency Period

Psychological Care

Almost two weeks after the earthquake, reconstruction efforts were underway in Sichuan, but many people felt anxious and being fearful of aftershocks, experiencing a wide range of stress-related psychosomatic symptoms. From June 1st 2008, a team of MSF psychologists offered psychological education and care in Longmenshan Township, Pengzhou to normalize reactions and teach the use of self-help techniques to manage symptoms.

Another team of MSF psychologists offered psychological care in Hanwang, Mianzhu city to reassure people that fears and anxiety are normal reactions, and that anyone can experience such problems. By September 2008, 163 patients were followed and 290 consultations were conducted in Mianzhu. In Pengzhou, MSF conducted a total of 39 sessions of psychological education for 746 people and 54 sessions of individual counseling.  

Reconstruction Period

Almost six months after the quake, rebuilding of collapsed buildings were underway, but many people were still living in a temporary housing and unsure of their future. People continued to suffer from mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, sadness, and feeling hopeless. Moreover, there were a limited number of trained psychologists who can provide clinical psychological care to patients in China.

Current MSF activities in Sichuan

From November 2008, in collaboration with Chinese Academy of Science and Crisis Intervention Center, MSF has been providing psychological care to the people suffering from psychological disorders due to the earthquake in Mianzhu city and Beichuan County, one of the worst affected areas in Sichuan.

Under the supervision of MSF psychologists, ten Chinese counselors have been providing psychological counseling at the consultation rooms set up in five temporary housing sites in Bayi School, YonXhin, Wudu, ZhuLin, and Leigu, in the area of Mianzhu and Beichuan. After the counselors conduct home visits to assess possible patients, they screen if the person is in need of psychological support and then provide psychological therapy (brief therapy: between 6 and 20 consultations) for patients to diminish their symptoms.

By March 2009, MSF team assessed more than 650 people, followed 300 patients, and conducted about 1,500 consultations. MSF also provides training and supervising to these Chinese counselors to help them dealing with patients and assure a good quality of care.