Earthquake Survivors May Have Long-Term Psychological, Physiological Effects

Release Date: September 19, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Years after experiencing a natural disaster, both children and adults suffer from psychological and physiological effects, two University at Buffalo studies suggest.

And, they showed, the effects may worsen with repeated exposure to natural disasters.

Conducted by researchers in the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in cooperation with Italian researchers, the studies focused on children and factory workers living in or near Naples, Italy. The region experienced earthquakes in 1980 and again in 1983-84.

The study of children is one of the first to document how they respond to natural disasters.

"This is one of the first studies on children that has used what we call standardized instruments as a method of measuring the children's well-being," said Maurizio Trevisan, M.D., professor and chair in UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and principal investigator on both studies..

Trevisan said that standardized instruments, such as the Achenbach Child Behavior Profile, with which teachers evaluated the children's psychological states, allowed researchers to quantify psychological and physiological effects children experienced after the earthquakes.

"Our findings show that the experience these children had during these natural disasters could have long-term implications for their ability to adjust later in life," he said.

The study of 274 children ages 8-11 who had been exposed to the 1983 earthquake showed that as long as four years after the quake, they demonstrated more behavior problems and difficulties in adaptive functioning than children of a similar age who had not been exposed to an earthquake.

The children demonstrated physiological complaints, as well as behavior problems, such as anxiety and depression, attention problems, withdrawn behavior and delinquent and aggressive behavior. These problems remained even after controls were made for age and gender.

The same children also demonstrated problems in adaptive functioning. This was measured by the quality of a child's schoolwork, the extent of happiness he or she felt in class, the extent of learning in the classroom and the appropriateness of a child's behavior as compared to that of children of a similar age.

According to the authors, the findings suggest that children, as well as adults, should be included in programs designed to ameliorate long-term psychological problems among survivors of natural disasters.

The study of adults, currently in press with Psychosomatic Medicine, followed 772 male factory workers participating in the follow-up to the Olivetti Heart Study of 1975. They became the subjects of the earthquake study when major temblors struck Italy in 1980.

All of the men in the study experienced the first quake. Approximately half of them experienced a second series of strong ground motions, which struck in 1983 and 1984.

According to the results, men whose homes had experienced some kind of damage, who were evacuated, or who suffered financial loss from either of the quakes were at an increased risk of experiencing significant distress as a result of psychological and physical symptoms.

Their somatic symptoms included headaches and joint pain, while self-reported psychological symptoms included depression, anxiety and hostility.

These symptoms persisted as long as seven years following an earthquake.

Co-authors on the study of children are Surinder Virk, UB graduate student; Raffaele Palombino, epidemiologist with the Local Health Unit, Pozzuoli, Italy; Dennis Bertram, M.D., UB assistant professor of social and preventive medicine, and Maria Zielezny, Ph.D., UB associate professor of social and preventive medicine.

Co-authors on the factory worker study are Susan Bland, UB research instructor; Erin O'Leary, UB graduate student; Eduoardo Farinaro, associate professor of preventive medicine, University of Naples, and Fabrizio Jossa, researcher in the Department of Medicine, University of Naples.

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