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A woman cries as she stands in the rubble hoping her relatives to be found by rescuers in Hatay as rescue teams began to wind down the search for survivors. Image Credit: AFP

COPENHAGEN: The World Health Organization said Tuesday that last week’s massive earthquake, the epicentre of which was in Turkey, constituted the “worst natural disaster” in 100 years in its Europe region.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, followed by a major aftershock, on February 6 has now killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

“We are witnessing the worst natural disaster in the WHO European region for a century and we are still learning about its magnitude,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told a press conference.

The WHO’s European region comprises 53 countries, including Turkey. Syria is a member of the WHO’s neighbouring Eastern Mediterranean region.

Kluge also said the health body had “initiated the largest deployment of emergency medical teams” in the 75-year history of the WHO European region.

“Twenty-two emergency medical teams have arrived in Turkey so far,” Kluge noted, adding they would integrate into “Turkey’s ongoing health response”.

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A satellite image shows an overview of extensive building damage and debris removal after an earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, February 13, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

The confirmed death toll following the earthquake stands at 35,331, as officials and medics said 31,643 people had died in Turkey and at least 3,688 in Syria.

The toll has barely changed in Syria for several days and is expected to rise.

“The needs are huge, increasing by the hour. Some 26 million people across both countries need humanitarian assistance,” Kluge said.

Meanwhile, doctors in a Turkish field hospital in the southern city of Iskenderun said they are treating increasing numbers of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.

“Initially the patients ... were those who sustained injuries under the rubble... now more of the patients are coming with post-traumatic stress disorder, following all the shock that they’ve gone through during the earthquake and what they have seen,” said Indian Army Major Beena Tiwari.

Many people were coming with panic attacks, she added.

The extent of the trauma survivors have experienced is enormous. Some have been pulled from the rubble after hours in the cold and darkness to discover family members have died or are missing, and the busy neighbourhoods where they lived have been reduced to mounds of shattered concrete.

100 experts

Tiwari is part of a team of almost 100 experts from India who established a field hospital to treat survivors of the earthquake, one of the worst in Turkey’s modern history, after a local hospital was destroyed.

PTSD is caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events, and people with PTSD can relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may have difficulties sleeping and concentrating.

In pictures

“People only now are starting to realise what happened to them after this shock period,” said a Turkish medical official.

Across the border in Syria, a makeshift centre run by Unicef provided children with “psychological first aid”, encouraging them to play and feel safe.

Staying at the shelter was 9-year-old Ahmad.

“With any loud voice or movement, he gets scared. Sometimes when he is asleep he wakes up and says ‘earthquake’,” said his father Hassan Moath.

infectious diseases

Iskenderun hospital commander Yaduvir Singh said they were also seeing more patients with infectious diseases and upper respiratory infections, and the thousands of people living in tents outside in freezing temperatures would be suffering hard.

“Initially, we were having lots of trauma cases, people who were buried in the rubble for a long time, for 72 hours, for 90 hours,” he said.

“On one person we had to do an amputation to save his life ... there were life and limb-saving surgeries. Now the case profile is changing.” The World Health Organization has launched a $43 million appeal to provide trauma care and rehabilitation, essential medicines, mental and psychosocial support, and to continue routine health services in Turkey.

“The needs are huge, increasing by the hour. Some 26 million people across both countries need humanitarian assistance,” said the WHO’s Europe Director Hans Kluge in a statement.

“Just over a week since this terrible tragedy, there are also growing concerns over emerging health issues linked to the cold weather, hygiene and sanitation, and the spread of infectious diseases,” he added.