The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Health Security Post-Japanese Quake and Tsunami

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude  earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean just off the northeastern coast of Japan, near the coastal city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The National Police Agency said that as of 21 March, the death toll and number of those reported missing came to a combined total of 21,911.

The earthquake and resultant tsunami have had significant health impacts on the Japanese population. Japanese public health officials have struggled with water treatment and distribution systems that have been contaminated by ocean water and oil, gas, pesticides, and decaying bodies carried inland by the waves. There are also worries of cross-contamination of waste water and treated water, escalating fears of the spread of water-borne diseases. Treating trauma, crush wounds and respiratory illnesses in tsunami victims has been identified as a pressing health priority. According to some, rapidly diminishing stocks of medical supplies and the mental health of the tsunami and quake survivors continues to challenge health response systems.

These public health concerns have been exacerbated by fears of health ramifications from exposure to nuclear radiation following explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. Although radiation health risks have been described as low, certain experts have warned that radioactive releases of steam from the plant could last for months. This has prompted widening fears of long-term public health, food security (such as radiation contamination in food from Japan) and environmental ramifications not only for the Japanese, but also for neighbouring countries and across the Pacific.

The post-quake period has seen what some have called a bubbling ‘cauldron of fear’ from the potential health ramifications of the crisis. Countries as far away as Finland have had to reassure their populations. US nuclear plans are in question.  The Philippine and Malaysian governments have publicly urged citizens to stop circulating hoax text messages encouraging rumours of radiation rain.

However, it remains important to recognise that Fukushima rates 5 on a seven-step scale of nuclear incidents. This places it on par with Three Mile Island, which resulted in no deaths and had no impact on the incidence of cancer in the region. It also places two rungs below Chernobyl at 7. Radiation experts have also said that given the nature of the manufacturing industries in Japan, there is little danger of radiation contamination in food reaching harmful levels.

While it remains important to recognise the health security risks and threats that have emerged as a direct consequence of the Japanese tragedy, it is equally important to exercise a measured approach in assessing and analysing them. The overestimation of threat can cause undue fear and panic. Conversely, the underestimation of problems can lead to a lack of commitment to addressing them. This is true to addressing both conventional health challenges as well as any nuclear radiation-related health issues arising from this situation. Ultimately, a moderate and well-informed approach to dealing with health security issues in post-disaster Japan may encourage better direction and strategy in resolving them.

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