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Pharmacist Hiroko Ito is a specialist in disaster management for the Oita Pharmaceutical Association. She also helped launch Kyushu’s first Mobile Pharmacy service, which has assisted during major disasters in the region.

At the ready: Disaster preparedness pro Hiroko Ito says to take your medication handbook with you if you ever need to evacuate your home.
At the ready: Disaster preparedness pro Hiroko Ito says to take your medication handbook with you if you ever need to evacuate your home.

1. What’s your role at the Oita Pharmaceutical Association?

I’m the director in charge of disaster management and of training pharmacists for support programs aimed at people trying to quit smoking.

2. What is the Mobile Pharmacy (MP) service? It’s a van equipped with medical supplies that is dispatched to disaster zones at the request of the prefectural government and the pharmaceutical association. The first one was in Miyagi Prefecture.

3. Is it a special kind of vehicle? It’s actually a camping van!

4. How did the service start? It originated with Dr. Takuro Yamada in Miyagi. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, he came up with the idea of turning a camping van into a mobile pharmacy vehicle to visit and assist at evacuation centers. The Miyagi Pharmaceutical Association helped give shape to his idea.

5. Has the service spread since then? Yes, there are currently 17 such MP vans around Japan, including some owned by pharmaceutical universities and regular companies.

6. When has the service been used in Kyushu? During the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016, we were dispatched immediately upon agreement between the Oita and Kumamoto prefectural pharmacists’ associations. We also helped out during the floods in northern Kyushu in 2017.

7. What specific assistance have you provided? During the Kumamoto earthquake, we dispensed medicine, provided health counseling at evacuation centers and managed health-related issues at evacuation centers.

8. You’ve trained with the Self-Defense Forces, too. What does that involve? After passing the initial exam, training is conducted for a total of 10 days over a period of two years in order to become a reserve Self-Defense Officer. Then there’s five days of training every year after that.

9. Was the training tough? It was physically challenging, but I hate to give in. The training will be invaluable in my future work, in terms of making quick decisions, hygiene management and teamwork.

10. What kind of outreach do you do with the local community and the Oita Pharmaceutical Association? One example is how every year we participate in Oita Prefecture’s disaster drills, which are held in various areas of the prefecture.

11. What’s one thing you always tell people? Take your kusuri techō (medication handbook) with you in the event of having to evacuate. During a disaster, it can take more than twice as long to get the medicine you need if you don’t have the handbook.

12. What are your three top tips for readers in terms of disaster preparedness? When disaster strikes, secure your own safety first of all. Also, make sure you know how to contact your family in case of a disaster — and practice from time to time. Finally, organize sleeping bags and enough food in advance so that you can support yourselves for three days.

13. How’s the situation for foreign residents in Japan? I think Japan’s disaster management is well-designed for Japanese, but it can be inadequate for foreign people. Some areas have disaster information translated into foreign languages, while others only have it in Japanese.

14. Any positive examples from around Japan? The “Tokyo Disaster Prevention” guidebook is available nationwide, and I have a copy. It has many illustrations and is easy to read.

15. What about hands-on help for non-Japanese during disasters? In Sendai, there are multilingual volunteers specially trained to help foreign residents in times of disaster. What they’re doing is fantastic! Beppu, Oita Prefecture, is implementing a similar initiative.

16. Any unforgettable incidents from your disaster management work? There was heavy flooding in the Hita area of Oita in 2014, and in 2015 I visited a community center there to conduct disaster training. I told them about the medication handbook at that time. Then, in 2017, Hita was affected by torrential rains in northern Kyushu. I came with the MP van to the same center and one of the evacuees showed me his medication handbook and said, “I brought it with me because of your advice at that training in 2015.” I was moved to tears.

17. What about care of pets when a disaster strikes? During the Kumamoto earthquake, pets were put in cages and placed together in front of some of the evacuation centers. I remember feeling upset. I don’t have any pets myself, but we need to work on this in the future.

18. Your job must be stressful. What do you do to relax? It isn’t possible now due to COVID-19, but I enjoy swimming in the pool at the gym during my lunch break. My other hobby is singing jazz. I can’t do live shows right now, so I sing at home.

19. What annoys you? Peeling shrimp!

20. What’s your favorite place in Oita to take out-of-town visitors to? I always take people to the foot steam baths at Kannawa Onsen in Beppu. After soaking your feet in the steam for just five minutes, your entire body will become warm and toasty.

 

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