How the dental industry responded to the crisis in Japan

April 1, 2011

Editor's Note I: I wrote this blog while in Germany attending the IDS meeting. I had the opportunity to talk to several people about the events and aftermath in Japan, and it's clear that, as always, the dental industry sprung into action to help where it could. Click here to read my blog and interviews from Germany.

Editor's Note II: The following was written by Jiro Masuda, advisor to the Osaka Dental University, active member of the dental industry, and a dear friend of mine who lives in Japan. He wrote the following notes regarding what he has seen in Japan following the horrific disasters that struck that country.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake (updated from an 8.8 magnitude by Japan Meteorological Agency on March 13) occurred on March 11, 2011, at 14:46, hitting the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan. The east coast of the Tohoku region was the most severely affected area.

The earthquake has been officially named The Tohoku Pacific Offshore Earthquake, and is the largest earthquake in the nation’s history since seismic observations have been made and recorded. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 had a magnitude of 7.9. The energy of the 9.0 earthquake was about 700 times more than that of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, which had magnitude of 7.3.

After the earthquake, massive tsunamis hit most of the Pacific Ocean side of northern Japan. Tsunamis more than 10 meters high flooded inland areas several kilometers from shore, swept away cities and towns, and destroyed thousands of houses、buildings, and corporate facilities. In some areas, the tsunami reached heights of more than 15 meters. Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures were very badly hit.

The National Police Agency said 10,036 people are confirmed dead, and 17,443 are reported missing in 12 prefectures as of 3 p.m. March 25. There are 2,766 people reported injured. Some 240,000 people had been evacuated to 1,900 shelters spread in 16 prefectures two weeks after the disaster. According to the agency, 18,766 homes were totally destroyed, 6,513, severely damaged, and about 140,000 somewhat damaged. Another 1,165 were swept away altogether.

According to the tally by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the number of primary, middle, and high schools that collapsed or were damaged March 11 came to nearly 2,000 in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures alone. Fifty-five sewage plants remain disabled. The NPA also said 54 bridges were damaged and 125 landslides were reported. The roads, highways, and expressways were heavily damaged and shut down. Even when some were reopened, the roads were only open to emergency and heavy vehicles and not to general traffic. According to the Kyodo news on March 26, total damages to houses and roads are estimated at between 16 trillion and 25 trillion.

Searches are still being conducted on land and in the sea. The full extent of loss of life and damages remains unclear. Therefore, all of the numbers mentioned above may greatly increase after all the surveys and reports are completed.

The biggest problems in devastated areas have been lack of electricity, phone service and other lifelines, and shortages in food, water, fuel, medicine, and daily necessities such as diapers and toiletries. There has been a great discrepancy in the degree and speed of the delivery of relief supplies and restoration activities, depending on access to the localities. The country certainly needs many more days before the situation begins to stabilize.

In addition to the earthquake and tsunami disasters, the country now has radiation leakage, though the World Health Organization says the risk is not very great. Two stricken nuclear power plants in Fukushima prefecture have reported problems with their cooling systems. Both have been declared nuclear emergencies. People living within 20 to 30 km of these plants have been evacuated. Public concern over the radiation effects on health and food (milk, vegetable, water, etc.) is increasing. The government says that the amounts detected so far are below danger levels, even if ingested. But things seem to be deteriorating day by day.

All of the other 44 prefectures, as well as certain designated cities, have offered people from Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures accommodations at evacuation centers, and public housing for relocation of evacuees.

When it comes to the casualties and damages in the dental community, it is too soon to know details.

The number of dentists and dental offices in the three worst hit prefectures are: Iwate — 1,026 dentists and 611 dental offices; Miyagi — 1,745 dentists and 1,050 dental offices; Fukushima — 1,423 dentists and 913 dental offices. The statistics for dentists are from 2008, and the statistics for dental offices are from 2010. Among 16 dental schools in the eastern half of Japan, Tohoku University Faculty of Dentistry is located in Sendai city, Miyagi prefecture, and Iwate Medical University School of Dentistry is in Morioka city, Iwate prefecture.

According to its website, the Japan Dental Association set up the JDA’s Earthquake Disaster Response Headquarters at its headquarters in the early morning of March 12, 2011, and is led by Dr. Mitsuo Okubo, president. The JDA has already conducted some activities, such as dispatching dental teams to the devastated areas to identify victims of the disaster, checking on the safety of JDA members and their families, surveying the status of dental offices, hospitals, and related oral health facilities, making plans to send mobile clinics to deliver oral health care at shelters, and more. On March 24, the JDA made the first shipment (using trucks arranged by the government) of oral health care products, hand instruments, devices, and dental materials to be delivered to the Iwate Dental Association, Miyagi Dental Association, and Fukushima Dental Association. These were donated by prefectural dental associations, the Japan Dental Trade Association including member corporations, and other dental organizations. More shipments will follow.

On March 23, The Nikkei newspaper reported that in Rikuzen-Takata city, Iwate prefecture, there were nine dental offices before the earthquake. Eight of them were totally destroyed by the tsunami. However, four dentists there have been treating patients at the shelter.

The twin disasters and the nuclear crisis are certainly fearful and dark clouds over Japan. However, all of the support, assistance, and warmhearted words extended to us by you, overseas friends and colleagues, greatly encourage us in our determination to restore and reconstruct the stricken areas of Japan.