Twelve days since Mount Mayon in the province of Albay started erupting on January 13, at least 60,000 residents have fled their homes for fear of being harmed and sought shelter in evacuation centres.

The world-famous volcano has continuously been spewing lava fountains, pyroclastic materials that include superheated gas and debris - forming thick ash clouds over the area.

Volcanologists estimate it has so far spewed 6.2 million cubic metres of lava.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), in response, has raised the alert level to 4, which means that hazardous eruptions are imminent and can occur any day or hour.

Officials have designated an 8-kilometre danger zone and another kilometre for preemptive evacuation. The expanded zone has resulted to more families being evacuated.

So far, there were 15,468 families, or 60,564 individuals evacuated, according to the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office.

Schools have been shut down, and 56 flights in the region were cancelled.

Health response

“The Philippine Red Cross (PRC) already activated its health volunteers to disseminate awareness campaign on the health hazards that may ensue to individuals living around an erupting volcano,” PRC chairman and Senator Richard Gordon was quoted as saying.

PRC has donated food, drinking water, hygiene items as well as counseling, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The Department of Health (DOH), apart from approving the release of funds for commodities and monitoring, has deployed 326 health workers, including nurses and midwives,to evacuation centres.

“Right now, we are on code blue alert due to Oplan: Mayon Operations. The DOH has already set up 24-hour medical stations and free checkups in every evacuation site. Evacuees were provided with safe drinking water and sanitary facilities. Those who were suffering were given medicines and managed,” Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III reported.

Medical fast lanes have also been established at the Bicol Medical Center and Bicol Regional Training and Teaching Hospital for residents affected by the ash fall.

“DOH will be ready and prepared in providing better health especially in times of natural disasters,” Secretary Duque said.

Dangers of volcanic ash

Primary health concerns in terms of volcanic ashfalls include respiratory illnesses, throat irritations, coughing, bronchitis, eye irritation and some skin problems.

The health risks also include inhalation of respirable crystalline silica which is a risk for silicosis and other chronic lung diseases, according to the Volcanic Ashfall Impact group.

Other than irritation, foreign bodies in the eyes could result in corneal abrasion and conjunctivitis.

Thick volcanic ashes also carry the risk for physical injuries such as vehicular mishaps, roof collapse and other related trauma.

In the meantime, the affected populations in Albay are advised to minimize exposure to the ash, wear protective covering and stay indoors. MIMS