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China quake babies bring joy

Published Jun 9, 2008

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Dujiangyan, China - Liu Dongmei's road to motherhood ended with a heavily pregnant shuffle down the middle of a five-lane highway and through the flaps of a white tent.

About an hour later, a nurse emerged cradling her infant son Xie Zhongde, bringing giddy smiles to a group of relatives in a community that has had precious little to celebrate since China's devastating earthquake.

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"He's so fat. That's very good," one aunt said of the 3.4-kilogramme baby, drawing approving giggles from the others.

Xie was born in a field hospital set up by the Chinese and German Red Cross societies and, for the rest of his life, will bear the memory of this orderly collection of about three dozen tents on a highway closed by quake damage.

His Chinese name means "Thank you, China and Germany".

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His arrival brings to four the number of babies delivered here in the makeshift facility in the quake-ravaged city of Dujiangyan in south-west China's Sichuan province.

Field hospitals like this one struggle to fill a huge gap in medical care caused by the May 12 quake, which killed more than 69 000 and left nearly 18 000 missing.

"About 95 percent of the hospitals (in the quake zone) have been damaged by the earthquake, so this hospital is very necessary for citizens here seeking medical services," said Dr Zou Hejian of Shanghai, who heads the temporary facility's doctor corps.

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The collapse of the medical infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges China faces in its response to the disaster, which also left more than 350 000 people injured.

With the task of rescuing quake victims finished, China is focused on feeding its millions of homeless, preventing disease outbreaks and resuming routine medical care for quake-zone residents, many of whom live in the tent camps that are ubiquitous across the region.

That frontline care has fallen largely on the many field hospitals set up by the Red Cross, the People's Liberation Army, local governments and other groups.

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The capabilities of each varies widely from simple outpatient care to the nearly full-service Chinese-German hospital, which opened on May 26.

With the China Red Cross supplying about 100 doctors and its German counterpart providing technical expertise, it has tents for radiology, paediatrics, obstetrics, intensive care, and an operating room among others.

It treats 700-800 patients per day, Zou said.

"The care here has been very good. As long as the baby is okay, that's the most important thing," Liu, the new "tent mother", said before going into the operating room for her cesarean delivery.

"I trust the doctors. The response to the disaster has been very good," said the 23-year-old mother.

Lying in the open-air maternity tent next to her dozing daughter Lan Xincheng, who was born the previous day, new mother Chen Xiaorong counted her blessings.

"When the earthquake struck, my first thought was for the baby, not for myself. I feared she would be harmed," said Chen, 21.

Weighed down by the unborn child, she barely escaped her collapsing home. The family now lives in a nearby tent camp.

While beaming over her daughter, she worried about raising the child in the disaster zone.

"I have gotten used to (living in the tents), but I worry about whether there will be proper nutrition for the baby," she said.

Like many field hospitals across the region, the facility's initial focus was on treating quake injuries such as broken bones and amputating limbs crushed in collapsed buildings, said Zou.

A month later, and with Sichuan's hot and humid summer now in full swing, heatstroke and related ailments are bringing increasing numbers of patients from the refugee camps, where the displaced swelter in their tent homes.

"This could be a very big problem as the weather gets hotter," Zou said.

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