By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun
Volunteers are swamping relief agencies with offers to help those countries in Asia devastated by the recent tsunami. The trouble is the majority of those who want to travel to the region -- many of them at their own expense -- aren't qualified to help. They lack either the necessary skills or the requisite experience.
Volunteers in Indonesia recover bodies from the tsunami.
Doctors Without Borders (DWB), the Canadian Red Cross and Oxfam Canada have all said that sending the well-intentioned but untrained to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere would be entirely counterproductive.
As David Morley, executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada in Toronto, says, "Given the enormity and complexity of the disaster we are working with our own experienced cadre of volunteers."
Tommi Laulajainen, DWB's communications director, says the organization is getting lots of doctors and nurses offering their skills, but he, too, points out that experience in a situation like this is imperative. He counsels any medical professional who wants to help to go to the DWB website (www.msf.ca
) first of all.
Among those volunteers who do have the skills and experience necessary to assist are a family physician in Toronto, an emergency room doctor from Hillsburgh near Guelph and a nurse from Belleville.
Hillsburgh's Dr. Bruce Lampard says he doesn't know when he'll head to Asia, although he expects it will be in the next few weeks. When he's there Lampard says his first task will be to understand what's already been done and build on that.
Lampard, who's just returned from working with Sudanese refugees in Chad, a country in central Africa, says he expects he will be engaged in lots of "disease surveillance" once he's on the ground.
Some of the big worries, says Lampard, are diarrheal diseases, malaria and measles, although in a sliver of optimism he notes the "nutritional status" of those in the region isn't bad.
Registered nurse Aloma Boyce expects to do a lot of supervising and teaching when or if she goes to Asia, overseeing locally hired health-care providers. Cholera and other water-born diseases are a constant danger, says Boyce, and dengue fever, a viral disease caused by mosquito bites, is also a major concern.
The appropriate skills and a background in relief work are crucial for anyone who wants to volunteer overseas.
Many relief agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, are swamped with offers from volunteers, but will not take first-timers.
The websites of Doctors Without Borders, the Canadian Red Cross and Oxfam Canada are excellent places to research the opportunity to volunteer.
Boyce, who lives in Belleville when she's not working for DWO or nursing in the High Arctic, also urges would-be volunteers to check out the DWB website. Any nurse with any aid experience is welcome to volunteer, Boyce says, but pediatric nurses are especially welcome.
Another medical specialty that will be in high demand is mental health. Dr. Roy Male, a Toronto family physician, says trauma counselling for the survivors of the tsunami will be crucial. So too will be clean water. "It's a big priority," says Male, pointing out that the tidal wave has made saline much of the fresh water in the region.
Although it's too late to help the Sri Lankans, Thais, Indonesians and others, anyone interested in acquiring the training to help in some other natural disaster might consider Seneca College's International Health Service certificate.
Cheryl Sams, program co-ordinator at Seneca, says it's one of just a few such courses in North America.
She says the program has two streams, one for nurses and other regulated health professionals and one for those trained in non-medical disciplines such as engineering and social services.
Students in both streams have three years to finish the course, 90% of which is done through distance education. There's also a 150-hour field placement. The students' age range is from recent graduate to 40s and 50s. Tuition is about $2,500.
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