IN THE past two weeks, La Soufriere volcano has registered important seismic activity, with intensifying explosions in the last days. Continuous ash fall has been reported in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and other neighboring islands, including Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada, which are at least 120 miles apart from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
PAHO/WHO has deployed five public health experts to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and is responding to the emergency in coordination with the Ministry of Health.
This rising crisis has led to the evacuation of an estimated 20,000 people from the northern part of the main island, and 3800 of them staying in one of the 87 shelters activated by the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).
Shelter procedures are met within the challenging context of COVID-19, given that extra precautionary measures are needed in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Distancing requirements have reduced the number of persons a shelter can accommodate, hygienic standards also had to be adapted, and personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed for those operating and staying in the shelter.
PAHO is coordinating with the national authorities to provide Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) to the affected population, particularly those living in vulnerable situations, including those who are displaced in shelters.
Equally challenging are the health hazards brought by continuing ash fall. Fresh ash can be acidic and abrasive, damaging infrastructure, vehicles, and household items. Short-term exposure to ash may cause eye, skin and throat irritation in otherwise healthy people. People with existing respiratory disease may experience aggravation of their symptoms (e.g., people with asthma, bronchitis and COPD). It is still unknown if long-term exposure to volcanic ash can cause respiratory disease.
Ash also contaminates water; ingestion of contaminated water or foods can cause gastrointestinal upset
and even death within vulnerable people like small children and the elderly, or people with previous health problems. However, the water quality needs to be monitored, as necessary to be treated.
It is not clear how much time this crisis brought by La Soufriere eruption will last, but from previous experiences of seismic activity in the Caribbean, it can be weeks or months of continued pyroclastic flows, including ash, and more time for the recovery of local infrastructure and basic services.
PAHO/WHO recommends taking the following steps to mitigate health risk from ashfall:
• Follow the recommendations of the emergency authorities.
• Minimize exposure to ash, staying indoors as much as possible.
• Stay calm – for healthy people ash is more bothersome than hazardous to your health, but you should minimize exposure to ash.
• If caught outside, stay covered and use a mask, preferably a medical mask. If not possible wear handkerchief/ cloth and protect the eyes, the skin, and cover the head.
• Cover water wells, and
• Seek health care if chest or respiratory symptoms develop.
PAHO/WHO will continue to support St. Vincent and Grenadines national authorities’ response with the shipment of various personal protective equipment and medical and sanitation supplies, including COVID-19 test kits.
A Statement from the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO)