New Zealand hospitals order skin to treat volcano survivors

Most of the survivors suffered critical burns after the Dec 9 eruption of the White Island volcano threw up scalding steam and ash. PHOTO: AP

WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - New Zealand medical staff were working around the clock on Thursday (Dec 12) to treat severely burned survivors of a volcanic eruption that police said was believed to have killed 16 people.

The enormity of the task facing New Zealand's hospital burn units was clear when Dr Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks.

Hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 120 sq m of skin for grafting onto the patients, Dr Watson said. Most of the survivors of Monday's eruption suffered critical burns and remain hospitalised.

The towering eruption of scalding steam and ash occurred as 47 visitors explored White Island, the tip of a mostly underwater volcano that is about 50km off New Zealand's North Island.

Police said on Thursday that an additional two people had died in the hospital, raising the confirmed toll to eight.

Another eight bodies are believed to remain on the ash-covered island, where continuing volcanic activity has delayed their retrieval.

The authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island at the time of the eruption.

Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that left Sydney two days earlier.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that some injured Australians had been medically evacuated and such flights would continue. Australia previously said up to 10 such patients would be transferred to hospitals in Victoria and New South Wales states for further treatment.

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New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency lowered White Island's volcanic alert level to two, noting there has been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to four.

Its alert level since late on Monday had been three on a scale where five signifies a major eruption.

A further eruption in the next day still remains a possibility, the agency said on Thursday, noting volcanic tremors are rising and steam and mud were being vented regularly.

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