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WHO Says It Is Ready To Assist Japan With Nuclear Challenge As Situation Develops

The WHO on Tuesday said it is ready to assist Japan with its emerging “nuclear emergency after some reactors were damaged by last week’s deadly earthquake” and tsunami, Agence France-Presse reports.

“We have expressed our availability to participate in a mission, to offer necessary assistance, if it is required,” said Maria Neira, the WHO’s director of public health and environment. The WHO said Japanese officials’ decision to impose exclusion zones around the nuclear plant were “in line with the existing recommendations based on public health expertise.” But Neira added, “The situation is evolving very quickly, the recommendations will have to be adapted with the situation as it evolves” (3/15).

“In a potentially alarming development Wednesday, tiny amounts of radiation were detected in the water supply in the area around the nuclear plant, NBC News reported, citing Fuji TV. It said the levels were slightly above the daily average but still within the healthy range,” according to MSNBC.com (3/16).

At a briefing on Wednesday, Yukio Edano, head spokesperson for the Japanese government, said radiation from the plant did not pose an immediate health threat outside an area which has already been evacuated, according to a second AFP article. “I have been informed that the figures monitored today (outside the zone) were not anything that would harm human health immediately,” he said. “But media reports citing defence ministry officials said military helicopters had postponed an attempt to drop water on the stricken plant because of the high radiation level,” AFP reports (3/16).

Michael O’Leary, WHO’s representative in China, said in a statement that they agency “would like to assure governments and members of the public that there is no evidence at this time of any significant international spread from the nuclear site,” Reuters reports. The agency also called “on people to stay calm and not spread rumors.”

“The WHO is working with Japan’s government and the International Atomic Energy Agency to assess the situation, and does not think there is significant risk to health for people outside a 30-km (20-mile) exclusion zone around the facility, he added,” according to Reuters (3/16).

Humanitarian Situation Continues To Unfold

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the country “has intensified, with relief workers being hampered by freezing temperatures and snowfalls while survivors struggle with shortages of water, food and electricity,” the Guardian reports.

“These latest developments will obviously make the humanitarian effort more difficult,” Francis Markus, a Red Cross spokesperson, said, noting the damaged nuclear reactors. According to Japan’s National Police Agency emergency disaster headquarters, so far 2,475 people have died and 3,118 people are officially missing. “The final death toll could rise far beyond 10,000. Save the Children said a fifth of those displaced were children and warned the disaster could result in many being orphaned,” the Guardian writes (Booth/McCurry, 3/15).

“Up to 450,000 people have crammed into makeshift evacuation centers across the country, waiting for a return to some sense of normalcy. Millions of people spent a fifth night with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures and snow as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones,” NPR writes (3/16).

On Monday, a disaster assessment and coordination team from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) arrived in Tokyo “at the behest of the Japanese government, to coordinate foreign aid flows, an onslaught of international humanitarian assistance and local relief efforts,” Inter Press Service reports.

“The seven-member disaster response team includes specialists from France, Britain, Sweden, India, the Republic of Korea and Japan. They have set up an Onsite Operations and Coordination Centre and will be disseminating timely information to the international community in the coming days. … The Japanese Red Cross Society has begun offering medical and psychosocial care to the scores of survivors and evacuees” (D’Almeida, 3/15). 

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.