Seismic performance standards could support both building and cardiovascular resilience, a newly released study of the aftermath of New Zealand’s 2010 and 2011 earthquakes theorizes. Researchers have drawn a link between destabilized housing conditions and a higher than normal heart attack rate among Christchurch residents aged 45 or older in the year following the September 2010 and February 2011 events, which, together, caused 185 deaths, 6,000 personal injuries and approximately NZ $30 billion (CAD $26.4 billion) in damage to residential properties.
“Our research question was whether the level of residential earthquake damage in the area in which someone lived was associated with a greater number of cardiovascular events in the three months, one year, and two to five subsequent years after the earthquake,” the New Zealand based research team state in a paper published in the medical research and news digest, The Lancet Planetary Health. “This is the first study to our knowledge that has linked insurance assessment of housing damage in small geographical areas to cardiovascular disease rates. Our findings relate specifically to housing damage in a high-income country.”
Data from New Zealand’s national Earthquake Commission, a crown agency that managed damage claims and insurance payouts, and Christchurch’s Canterbury District Health Board underpin the findings. The degree of housing damage was categorized based on the ratio between the payout — which was capped at a maximum of NZ $100,000 (CAD $88,000) — and the assessed property value. Researchers could then plot greater and lesser destruction across small zones of no more than 50 dwellings, and compare relative levels of hospitalization for heart attacks and a range of other cardiovascular issues.
From the sample group of 148,000 people living in earthquake-affected areas of the city: 1,296 were admitted for cardiovascular disease within three months following the earthquakes; 4,530 were admitted during the first year; and 12,260 were admitted in the second to fifth years after the quakes. Researchers concluded that cardiovascular health was undermined in the hardest-hit areas, resulting in 66 more admissions, 29 more heart attacks and 46 more deaths related to cardiovascular disease during the year following the quakes than among residents of areas sustaining the least amount of damage.
Acute stress is tagged for much of the blame. “Our findings are consistent with the 23 per cent increase in psychological disorders in the first year post earthquake for people living in the most earthquake-affected areas compared with those living in the rest of the city,” the researchers observe.
Taking into account other possible economic, social and cultural factors that can help to ameliorate stress, researchers suggest their findings can help inform future preparedness strategies. “Pre-earthquake measures to minimize housing damage in an earthquake are likely to reduced the psychological stress experienced in a natural disaster by limiting the time and cost of repair and loss of homes. These measures include policies and standards for building construction, insurance policies and processes and local government planning,” they advise.
From a health care planning perspective, other resiliency stakeholders suggest the findings reinforce the “secondary surge” theory that disaster events trigger increased medical needs arising from chronic diseases, in addition to injuries and other health issues related directly to the emergency. An accompanying review of the research from public health and disaster research scholars, Suzanne Phibbs and Christine Kenney, urges disaster planners to consider this likely need for services for seniors and other vulnerable groups.
They also call for more research. “Research findings might potentially provide valuable in-depth information about health stresses associated with rent hikes, relocation challenges and difficulties accessing essential health and social services , which could enhance planning for more effective health services in post-earthquake contexts,” they maintain.