Major natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods often precipitate sudden emergencies, which have significant impact on all domains of life for affected populations. Children are a particularly vulnerable group to the effects of natural disasters, with unique physical, developmental, and psychosocial characteristics that place them at high risk for adverse outcomes (Murray, 2011). Some of the consequences for children after natural disasters include physical insecurity, poor living conditions and displacement, and disruption to community life. Numerous children may also be left orphaned after the loss of one or both parents. The aftermath of natural disasters place children at risk for adverse physical but also psychological sequelae (Chemtob et al. 2002).
The vulnerable child
A rapid assessment of child protection needs after a disaster is vital. The child is prone to the physical effects of exposure to the elements, injuries, lack of secure or safe shelter and disease. Children can also have psychological sequelae from family separation, witnessing of distressing events and death, and the general loss of security. Children may be at risk of abandonment, violence, abuse and organised crime and trafficking in the post-disaster setting (Balsari et al. 2010). These physical and psychological outcomes may have immediate but also longer lasting effects on the child.
Mental health outcomes
Some responses reported in children after the Thai tsunami and Hurricane Katrina included depressed mood, general fearfulness, anxiety and a sense of isolation. Children were afraid to separate from family, had hyperarousal symptoms of excess startling, as well as sleep disturbances and nightmares. Some of these symptoms are compatible with post-traumatic stress disorder (Balsari et al. 2010, Pairojkul et al. 2010).
Large numbers of children lost their parents or siblings due to the Indian Ocean tsunami, with estimates of at least 1000 children orphaned by the disaster (UNICEF THAILAND) Grief and bereavement was seen in many of these children, however, developmentally, children may struggle to express their negative emotions to the disaster. Instead, they may display depressed mood, frequent crying and irritability, as well as hyperactivity or difficulty with concentration and even violent behaviour (Pairojkul et al. 2010).
These psychological disturbances may negatively affect child growth and development, and may last beyond one year after the disaster. McLaughlin et al. (2010) showed around 11% of children to have ongoing emotional disturbance even 3 years after the Katrina hurricane, with aggression, excess fear, withdrawal and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being displayed.
Risk factors suggested for intensified responses include preceding problems within the family unit or community structure and orphan status prior to the disaster. Indeed, the symptoms of PTSD in Sri Lankan children affected...