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Daunting medical issues for earthquake survivors are just beginning

As international medical teams stream into the earthquake-ravaged areas of Turkey and Syria, the injuries they are encountering are horrific but no surprise: broken bones, arms and legs crushed by collapsed buildings, infected gashes.

But that’s only the beginning for doctors and paramedics working feverishly to save lives in a disaster that has already claimed more than 20,000 people, experts say.

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In coming weeks, as search efforts turn to the grim task of recovering bodies, countless survivors will need medications for high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma left behind in the rubble. Many who are pregnant will give birth in makeshift shelters and refugee camps. Cancer patients will go without treatment.

Freezing temperatures mean survivors in thrown-together shelters face hypothermia or frostbite. Close quarters in shelters could also lead to the spread of the coronavirus and other respiratory viruses.

And there’s another looming risk: waterborne diseases such as cholera, which had already appeared in the affected war-torn region of northwest Syria because of poor water quality and sanitation.

“It’s a horrible situation. You can’t do everything you want to do and you have to adapt to a whole different way of treating people. It’s a mentally and morally taxing situation,” Thomas Kirsch, a professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said of the coming challenges for medical workers.

Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the time period after the search-and-rescue efforts will be crucial, if less dramatic.

“You likely will save a lot more people by ensuring you have surveillance and thinking about continuing care and supplies,” he said.

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