Floods, no hindrance to education system - Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam | Sunday Observer

Floods, no hindrance to education system - Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam

 Joy Wong/Save the Children
Joy Wong/Save the Children

The Government will take all possible steps to help schoolchildren and schools affected by the devastating flood and minimize the impact on the education system as a whole.

According to the latest reports from the Ministry of Education, 45 children have died and eight children are reported missing due to the recent floods and landslides. The highest number of child deaths has taken place in Ratnapura and Horana. The number of child deaths in the Sabaragamuwa Province is 18, Southern Province 10 while eight are missing and in the Western Province the casualty figure is 17.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer the Minister of Education, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said, the affected schoolchildren will be provided with three school uniforms, shoes, textbooks and exercise books, as soon as possible. “The number of schools which are totally damaged is 146 and 77 schools are functioning as camps. Immediate measures will be taken to renovate the affected schools. It is not compulsory for affected children to wear uniforms until they are provided and they can go to school in casual wear when the schools reopen. Examination certificates will be provided free of charge from the Examinations Department for those who have lost their certificates. All the missed school days would be covered by extending school hours or by conducting school sessions on Saturdays,” he said.

He further said, all schools in the Western Province will reopen on Monday June 5. “In the Sabaragamuwa Province all schools will be opened except the 15 schools which are used as camps. In the Southern Province all schools will be opened expect the 10 schools used as camps. The 29 damaged schools will not be reopened.”

A discussion was held at the Education Ministry about the re-construction of schools, uniforms, textbooks, other equipment and psychological counselling for the affected children. The Zonal Education Directors have the authority to decide on the reopening of schools used as camps for the displaced.

Technical Advisor- Health and Nutrition from Save the Children International, Dr. Sherine Amarasekera, spoke to the Sunday Observer about the health impacts that the recent floods could have on children. She said, “There is an increase in the transmission of communicable diseases during floods and landslides. Water-borne diseases, such as, leptospirosis, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, cholera, Vector-borne diseases, such as dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever and malaria can prop up among the very young children and elderly affected by the floods. “There is an increased risk of infection of water-borne diseases contracted through direct contact with polluted waters, such as wound infections, dermatitis, conjunctivitis, and ear, nose and throat infections. However, these diseases are not epidemic. The only epidemic-prone infection which can be transmitted directly from contaminated water is leptospirosis, a bacterial disease. Transmission occurs through contact of the skin and mucous membranes with water, damp soil or vegetation or mud contaminated with infected rodent urine,” she said.

“The main precaution would be to provide boiled cooled water or safe drinking water. Food should be cooked well and no raw food should be given to the children. The bacteria live in freshwater and are killed instantly by heat, disinfectants, acids and alkalis. Normally-cooked food and boiled water will be safe. The contents of sealed containers (tins, cans and bottles) will be perfectly safe provided the container is undamaged and is allowed to dry or washed before use. Peeling most fruit and vegetable species will also remove any leptospiral hazard as the bacteria only exist on the surface. Children with wounds should cover it with water proof dressings and wear safety footwear,” Dr. Amarasekera said.

She further added that children are at a risk of drowning and injuries or trauma. “Tetanus boosters may be indicated for previously vaccinated people who sustain open wounds or for other injured people depending on their tetanus immunization history. Hypothermia may also be a problem, in children, if trapped in floodwaters for lengthy periods. There may also be an increased risk of respiratory tract infections due to exposure (loss of shelter, exposure to flood waters and rain). Power cuts related to floods may disrupt water treatment and supply plants thereby increasing the risk of water-borne diseases but may also affect proper functioning of health facilities.”

Many international organizations and UN agencies have come forward to help the affected children. According to Save the Children International, 219,842 children under 18 and 21,948 children under five are among the total affected and 24,963 children are in camps.

Coordinator- Communications, Media and Advocacy at Save the Children, Madhubhashini Rathnayaka said, Save the Children has already begun its emergency flood response. “Immediately we started Child Friendly Spaces in the temporary shelters and also we are providing psychological first aid to the children. Child Friendly Space is to provide children with a protected environment in which they can participate in organized activities to play, socialize, learn, and express themselves as they rebuild their lives. Currently, we are providing household kits in the affected areas in Galle and Matara. Save the Children will also start distributing hygiene items to prevent the spread of disease,” she said.

Communication Officer External Relations, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Sri Lanka, Suzanne Wooster – Prematilaka, said, “UNICEF is responding to the immediate needs of affected children and families. UNICEF is providing nearly 16 million rupees worth relief for flood affected communities through the Ministry of Disaster Management which includes 1,260 10L Jerry cans, 1,000 tarpaulins, 100,000 water purification tablets, additional 1,000,000 water purification tablets in the process of being procured,10 Submersible water pumps, 6 sludge water pumps, 6 6,000l water bowsers and 20,000 chlorine tablets. UNICEF will be providing additional support for longer term needs of children and families.”

Clinical Psychiatrist, Government Base Hospital, Psychiatry Unit, Kiribathgoda, Dr. N. Kumaranayake, spoke about the emotional toll the disaster can have on children. He said, “Several factors affect a child’s response to a disaster. The way children see and understand their parents’ responses are very important. Children are aware of their parents’ worries most of the time, but they can be very sensitive during a crisis. Parents should talk about their worries to their children, and about their abilities to cope with the disaster.

Pretending there is no danger will not end a child’s concerns. A child’s reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child’s school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience difficulties.”

“A child’s age affects how it will respond to the disaster. For example, six-year-olds may show their worries by refusing to attend school, whereas teens may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance.

Following a disaster, people may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a set of symptoms that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening) event.

Dr. N. Kumaranayake said, After a disaster, parents should be alert to these changes in a child’s behaviour:

* Refusal to return to school and ‘clinging’ behaviour, including shadowing the mother or father around the house

* Continuing fears about the event (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents)

* Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bed wetting, persisting more than several days after the event

* Loss of concentration and irritability

* Jumpiness or being startled easily

* Behaviour problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not usual for the child

* Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found

* Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster

According to Dr. N. Kumaranayake, most children return to their prior levels of functioning over time. “The majority of children and adolescents manifest resilience in the aftermath of traumatic experiences.

This is especially true of single-incident exposure. Youths who have been exposed to multiple traumas, have a past history of anxiety problems, or have experienced family adversity are likely to be at higher risk of showing symptoms of post traumatic stress. Despite exposure to traumatic events and experiencing short-term distress, most children and adolescents return to their previous levels of functioning after several weeks or months and resume a normal developmental course. This resilience typically results in a reduction in both psychological distress and physiological arousal.

“Although most return to baseline functioning, a substantial minority of children develop severe acute or ongoing psychological symptoms (including PTSD symptoms) that bother them, interfere with their daily functioning, and warrant clinical attention. Some of these reactions can be quite severe and chronic.

Most children and adolescents with traumatic exposure or trauma-related psychological symptoms are not identified and consequently do not receive any help. Even those who are identified as in need of help frequently do not obtain any services”, Dr.Kumaranayake said.

Minister of Women and Child Affairs, Chandrani Bandara said, “Children affected are in need of clothes and shoes. We have issued a circular on May 29, to all relevant AGA offices of the eight affected districts, to prepare the morning meals, with the funds, for all the children displaced, under 18 years of age.

Our Ministry, along with UNICEF and donors will be re-building all Pre-schools with necessary educational goods which were destroyed by the disaster.” 

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