Japanese earthquake survivors hit by 'economy class syndrome'

TOKYO • Many people made homeless by a series of earthquakes in southern Japan earlier this month are choosing to sleep in cars rather than in evacuation shelters.

Dirty toilets, a lack of running water, cramped conditions and the fear of being trapped in a collapsing building are among the reasons they give. But one dangerous consequence is that people are increasingly being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, or "economy class syndrome", from sitting in the same position for hours at a time.

As many as 97 quake refugees may be suffering from the syndrome - most of them women and many of them elderly, according to the Kyodo news agency.

Local media reported last week that a 51-year-old woman's cause of death was likely the blockage of a lung artery after she spent several nights in a car following the 6.5-magnitude quake on April 14. That quake was followed 28 hours later by another registering a 7.3 magnitude.

Ms Seiko Yonemura, a 44-year-old care worker at a hospital in Kumamoto city near the epicentres of the quakes and hundreds of aftershocks, said she slept in her car with her mother and two children after the biggest quake hit. The next day, they moved into a shelter in the gymnasium at the local school because, she said, they were too scared to stay at home.

"At first, the shelter was extremely crowded so some people went out to sleep in the parking lot," Ms Yonemura said.

"It was hard to sleep because they kept the lights on all the time - even at night - because of concerns over people moving around if there were aftershocks. I would go to the car to get some rest in the night."

Ms Yonemura said that her job at the hospital meant she was aware of the syndrome, and she made sure that she moved around and stayed hydrated. Not everyone took the same precautions.

"Old people especially didn't take enough water as they didn't want to keep going to the toilets, which had long queues and no running water," she said.

"Women wouldn't drink much water for the same reason."

The earthquakes killed 49 people, with 14 others dying from other causes following the quakes.

With many homes destroyed, nearly 50,000 people are still staying at the 500 or so evacuation centres in the region.

A Mainichi newspaper survey of 50 people sleeping in cars found that 19 were doing so because they were scared to be indoors. Fifteen cited stress from the lack of privacy, while 14 said they were hesitant to use shelters as they had children or pets. Pets are not allowed in shelters. More than half of them said their health had deteriorated.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Japanese earthquake survivors hit by 'economy class syndrome''. Print Edition | Subscribe