Japan calls on troops to help relief efforts after devastating earthquake

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 15 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1666
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. 1London

Japan has begun a massive relief operation in response to three consecutive emergencies: earthquake, tsunami, and the threat of nuclear radiation from damaged reactors. The full extent of the disaster has yet to be assessed, but the prime minister, Naoto Kan, described it as the worst crisis in his country since the second world war.

The magnitude 9 earthquake, which triggered a devastating tsunami that ravaged the northeast coast of Japan, was one of the strongest since records began (more than a century ago) and the worst in Japanese history. The epicentre was 120 km off the coast, causing a 10 m high wave that surged 0.5 km inland in some areas, destroying everything in its path.

As the authorities work to control several damaged nuclear power stations, a major emergency response operation in the tsunami and earthquake affected areas is under way. The government has ordered 100 000 defence force troops to help conduct emergency operations.

About 380 000 people have been evacuated from the affected areas and are being sheltered in 2050 evacuation centres.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that authorities in Japan have also evacuated another 210 000 people living within a 20 km radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where a nuclear emergency has been declared after explosions in its damaged reactors.

After a third explosion at the site that led to radiation rising to levels that could affect human health, the government warned a further 140 000 people living within a 30 km radius to stay indoors and to seal their windows, and it says that it is taking a number of precautionary measures to protect its citizens, including providing stocks of iodine pills. Two other damaged nuclear facilities at Tokai and Onagawa are also giving cause for concern.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that rescue and relief operations “are being hampered by continuous aftershocks, tsunami alerts, and fires.” Many areas along the northeast coast remain isolated and unreachable by emergency services. It warns that “the impact of the disaster is exacerbated by winter weather,” with temperatures dropping to less than 1°C at night.

It says that the worst affected areas are in the prefectures along the northeastern coast, including Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, and Chiba. Before the crisis the population of these five prefectures was 14.8 million people, of whom 1.6 million lived within 5 km of the coast.

As at 14 March the government of Japan confirmed that 1647 people had died, 1990 people were injured, and more than 10 000 people were missing. The number is likely to rise once emergency teams reach the tsunami affected areas.

Hospitals are reported to be coping with the number of patients, with 145 of the 170 designated emergency response hospitals fully functioning. Medical teams from 52 hospitals from around the country have been sent to the earthquake hit areas to help treat injured people.

The Japanese Red Cross has 62 teams also providing assistance, and 178 disaster medical teams have been deployed, with another 111 on the way.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the main humanitarian needs are food, drinking water, blankets, fuel, and medical items. Adequate water supply in the tsunami affected areas is a concern because of water contamination and salination. An estimated 1.4 million households in 14 prefectures have no access to mains water, while millions more have no electricity, and gas supplies are reported to be running low.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1666