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Niigata surgeon takes on risk of economy-class syndrome in disaster-hit areas

Kyodo

Since the October 2004 Niigata-Chuetsu earthquake, Kazuhiko Hanzawa, a vascular surgeon at Niigata University Medical & Dental Hospital, has been conducting free checks for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), commonly known as economy-class syndrome, in quake-hit areas.

While he considered abandoning the effort at times due to a lack of funds, he has managed to keep the initiative going through donations and budget adjustments.

“I want to continue conducting checkups for those living in afflicted areas for as long as possible,” said the 53-year-old Hanzawa.

DVT refers to the formation of a blood clot in the veins. It usually occurs when an individual is inactive and stays in the same sitting or standing position for prolonged periods, causing the blood in the veins of the legs to coagulate. Relapse is common, and patients can also be vulnerable to sudden death. Taking shelter in cars and evacuation centers in times of disaster — where evacuees are prone to immobility and inactivity — can lead to the onset of the syndrome.

In December, Hanzawa conducted yearly health checks at an educational facility in the Niigata Prefecture city of Ojiya. Residents were asked whether they had ever been diagnosed with a blood clot before, while technicians performed an ultrasound scan on their legs.

Junko Watanabe, 66, who went through the checkup, said, “I’d always been told that I have poor blood flow. I’m very grateful for these regular checkups.”

Hanzawa started offering the checks immediately after the earthquake. Many of those he examined had indeed developed blood clots, and because recovery took more than a year for some patients, he felt the need to follow up over a longer period.

The examinations have been conducted with the help of volunteer technicians and donations. Government funding was suspended in around 2007, and Hanzawa considered ending the checks altogether, but he managed to continue by diverting a portion of funds allocated for research workshops.

Although exercising and staying hydrated are important short-term solutions for preventing DVT, Hanzawa stressed that improving conditions at evacuation centers — such as by having beds available — is a key to finding a more fundamental solution.

“It would be irresponsible to stop conducting checkups when you know that the cases of blood clots and their relapses in disaster-hit areas are so high,” Hanzawa said.