Death rates spike among elderly evacuees from Fukushima

January 11, 2013

By YURI OIWA/ Staff Writer

Former residents of nursing homes near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant died at a higher rate than usual in 2011, a study has shown, likely because of the stress of evacuation and having to live in temporary accommodations such as draughty school gyms.

Researchers from the Fukushima Medical University studied reports submitted to the Fukushima prefectural government by 34 institutions for the elderly and found that the death rate over eight months in 2011 was 2.4 times that of the same period in 2010.

Furthermore, there was a spike in deaths during the three months immediately following the disaster to three times the level of a year earlier.

The studied data was for March to October 2011 and covered the residents of care homes within 20 kilometers of the plant--the mandatory evacuation zone--whose doors were locked, but which continued to function administratively as the patients were sent elsewhere.

During this period, pneumonia accounted for 40 percent of deaths, whereas it usually accounts for only 10 percent of deaths of those aged 65 or more.

The high toll was likely caused by insufficient disaster preparations and the effect on frail individuals of uncomfortable conditions in evacuation shelters.

Of all 1,770 residents living at the 34 institutions at the time of the disaster, 295 had died by the end of October 2011. An additional 32 died in the tsunami. By comparison, only 109 died in the same period in 2010.

The evacuees included a wide range of residents, ranging from the bedridden to those who could mostly take care of themselves.

When the central government ordered that the 20-kilometer zone be vacated, all residents were dispatched initially to local hospitals and school halls. Later, many likely moved to nursing homes or equivalent institutions further afield in Fukushima Prefecture and across Japan.

"They may have developed bronchitis in shelters that were too chilly, or pneumonia due to insufficient care," said Seiji Yasumura, a member of the research team and a public hygiene professor at the Fukushima Medical University.

The report, published in November in a British science journal, also revealed that few, if any, of the nursing homes had emergency power systems or the stocks of food and bottled water needed in an evacuation.

Central and local government committees on nuclear disaster preparedness have proposed that in the future, vulnerable patients remain at their institutions until there is a satisfactory means of moving them somewhere safer. Committee members argued this would make it less of an ordeal.

But that assumes hospitals and other institutions have emergency power systems and stocks of food, water and blankets.

"The latest study revealed the surveyed facilities lacked concrete evacuation plans and procedures, and furthermore had not conducted evacuation drills," Yasumura said.

"Hospitals are better prepared for disasters than institutions for the elderly," he added. "The central and local governments need to address this."

By YURI OIWA/ Staff Writer
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  • Elderly evacuees at a nursing facility in Fukushima in March 2011. A member of staff is seen trying to encourage them (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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