Asia: After Tsunamis, Outbreak Of Epidemics Feared

By Charles Recknagel

The death toll from the 26 December tsunamis in Southeastern Asia is now more than 100,000 and growing as the bodies of more victims are found. As relief agencies try to cope with the crisis, there are fears that inadequate shelter and sanitation could lead to epidemics in the region as well. The greatest danger is posed by unsanitary drinking water.

Prague, 30 December 2004 (RFE/RL) — Relief agencies find themselves overwhelmed with the magnitude of the disaster in the Indian Ocean region.

UN emergency-relief coordinator Jan Egeland described the situation this way to reporters yesterday in New York: “It will take maybe 48 to 72 hours more to be able to respond to the tens of thousands of people who would like to have assistance today — or yesterday, rather,” he said. “I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks [ahead].”

The immediate focus of relief efforts is providing drinking water, food, shelter, and medical care to those who survived the onslaught of giant tidal waves. The tsunamis not only destroyed shoreline communities but flooded low-lying areas many kilometers inland, displacing up to 5 million people according to preliminary UN health agency estimates.

But as the flooding recedes and efforts to care for homeless survivors get under way, health officials say new risks loom. The most serious is the potential outbreak of epidemics.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the UN World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, told RFE/RL the greatest danger comes from unsanitary drinking water. “Between 3 and 5 million people are homeless and they will live in overcrowded temporary settlement camps with poor sanitation infrastructures, so that really facilitates the transmission of any potential water-borne diseases,” he said.

Drinking unsanitary water can bring diarrhea, hepatitis, and cholera. The diseases, often passed through water contaminated with human feces, are debilitating and, if severe and untreated, fatal.

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