July 3, 2011

JAPAN: Fleeing crisis takes deadly toll on elderly

OSAKA, Japan / The Yomiuri Shimbum / National News / July 3, 2011

77 Fukushima evacuees died within three months

Nearly 80 elderly people who were evacuated from nursing homes near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant died within three months of the accidents at the plant that forced them to move, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

The 77 deaths are more than triple the 25 recorded at the nursing homes during the corresponding period last year.

Officials at the homes believe many of this year's deaths resulted from a decline in physical strength caused by moving far from the nursing homes and living in an unfamiliar environment. Many of the people who died had struggled to adapt to their new living conditions, the officials said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed 15 nursing homes--13 for elderly people requiring special care, and two for elderly people who cannot live alone or with their family due to financial and other reasons--within 30 kilometers of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

One nursing home just outside the 30-kilometer evacuation zone, run by a corporation that operates a home within the zone, also responded to the survey.

According to the survey, 826 elderly people were evacuated from 12 nursing homes near the nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

Based on the Law on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, the government instructed residents living within three kilometers of the nuclear plant to evacuate on March 11, the day after a massive earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling functions.

The next day, residents within 20 kilometers of the plant were told to evacuate. On March 18, the government asked elderly people at nursing homes 20 to 30 kilometers from the plant to leave the area.

The 77 elderly people who died after evacuating were aged 68 to 104--46 were in their 90s, 19 in their 80s, seven in their 100s, four in their 70s and one was 68.

AFP Photo

At least 20 died within a month after the nuclear accident, and 42 the following month, according to the nursing homes. The major causes of death were pneumonia and brain infarction, the survey found. Some died of old age, the nursing homes said.

A nursing home within 10 kilometers of the nuclear plant evacuated its 88 residents to emergency shelters, including a gymnasium in Kawamatamachi, Fukushima Prefecture. They were then moved to a nursing home in Tochigi Prefecture and elsewhere, but 10 died.

"Many of them had to stay on the gym's hard floor for a week. Some suffered from dehydration," an official of the evacuated nursing home said.

Nursing home Chojuso (house for longevity) in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, evacuated 56 elderly people to 13 institutions in Tochigi Prefecture. According to Chojuso, 16 died in the three months after the nuclear accident.

A 67-year-old man whose 93-year-old mother died after evacuating to Ibaraki Prefecture from Chojuso said: "I want to thank everyone who helped my mother evacuate. However, I can't help wishing that she could have spent her final days in Minami-Soma, where she'd lived her whole life."

Gunma University Prof. Toshitaka Katada, an expert in disaster social engineering, said: "I believe so many people died in a short period because they couldn't cope with the change of living environment after moving from a familiar place. We need to realize that these elderly people, who are vulnerable to disasters, died without being able to tell us they were suffering.

"The government needs to establish a system in which nursing homes across wide areas cooperate following a disaster or nuclear accident," Katada added.

Relatives of at least 23 of the dead elderly people have applied for condolence money paid by local governments when people die due to the indirect influence of disasters, such as a decline in physical strength or worsening of chronic diseases caused by staying at an evacuation site for an extended period. Up to 5 million yen will be paid to the relatives of people who died for such reasons.

In the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, 919 of the 6,402 people who died in Hyogo Prefecture were not killed by the direct impact of the quake, such as by being crushed by a collapsed building, but died because of health problems resulting from prolonged life as evacuees.

There could be calls to have the nuclear plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., pay compensation for the elderly evacuees' deaths, according to observers.

© The Yomiuri Shimbun
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