LEAD: Despite worldwide eagerness to provide medical aid to victims of natural catastrophes, assistance flown in from far away has generally proved of little value, according to reports presented this week to a workshop at the United Nations.
Despite worldwide eagerness to provide medical aid to victims of natural catastrophes, assistance flown in from far away has generally proved of little value, according to reports presented this week to a workshop at the United Nations.
Only physicians near enough to the scene to arrive within hours, usually those native to the affected area, are likely to be of much help, specialists in disaster relief said.
Dr. Robert Knouss, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, said it is better to wait until the affected country specifies what it needs. ''Forty-eight hours of reflection,'' he told the workshop, may save more lives than burdening officials with unneeded people and medicines.
Dr. Eric K. Noji, a specialist in emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University, who recently returned from the area of Armenia devastated by an earthquake, reported that most medical help from the United States and elsewhere had been of little value. It arrived too late for emergency medical treatment, he said.
Between 85 percent and 95 percent of those extracted alive from the rubble were rescued in the first two days, he said, whereas the American rescue team did not begin operation until five days after the disaster. By then, 1,000 Soviet helpers were at work and had rescued 450 victims. Two victims were extracted by the Americans, he said.
But with their search dogs, the Americans helped to locate others, said Dr. Frederick Krimgold of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a member of the same group, Even before the Armenian disaster, Dr. Noji reported, ''I was particularly concerned regarding the poor quality of emergency medical care rendered at or near the sites of building collapses,'' both in the United States and elsewhere.
''It is my feeling,'' said Dr. Noji, ''that even basic airway support and administration of intravenous fluids will go a long way toward reducing the morbidity and mortality related to building collapse.'' But in Armenia, where severe cold was a factor, as well as after recent disasters in Mexico City and El Salvador, he reported seeing little medical care being administered while victims were still trapped. Advance Preparations Needed
To cope with kidney injuries, Canadian rescue specialists said, Armenia now has more dialysis machines, per capita, than any region of the world. Dialysis is used to cleanse the blood when kidneys cannot do so.
But it was widely agreed that the most effective way to cope with such disasters is the conduct of extensive preparations in advance. Once the disaster has occurred, it is too late.
At the United Nations, Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet of the Pan American Health Organization and others stressed the need for foreign countries to wait until the needs were known.
He told how after a recent earthquake in Mexico City there were 20,000 to 23,000 Mexican physicians. Yet there were only 1,500 victims admitted to hospitals. An influx of physicians unfamiliar with the local language and customs was obviously more of a burden than a help.
The situation in Armenia was more critical. Dr. Noji said, because ''virtually all hospitals and medical clinics were destroyed and many of the region's physicians and nurses killed or severely injured.'' Most of the medical personnel were from other parts of the Soviet Union.