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14 January 2005

Fears about Post-Tsunami Disease Abating, U.N. Says

Water-borne disease risk reduced, malaria still a threat

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The worst fears about disease raging through already victimized and weakened populations of Indian Ocean nations are dissipating with the delivery of fresh water supplies to the battered region.

“I do not think it’s a right prediction any more that as many people can die from the second wave of destroyed infrastructure as we then feared in the beginning, said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland January 13.

International health officials predicted January 5 that lack of access to clean drinking water could bring on a wave of dysentery, cholera or other water-borne diseases. Without immediate action, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that such a wave of infection might kill as many people as did the devastating December 26 earthquake and tsunami.

The death toll now approaches 160,000 and is expected to climb still higher.

The international community has responded with urgency, however, and fresh water supplies are being delivered, though reaching some inaccessible areas is still difficult, according to a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) fact sheet.

Despite the lowered expectations about potential deaths, disease risk is still high throughout the affected region. Significant standing water is left behind in many areas after the sea’s invasion of the land, forming ideal breeding conditions for malaria -- a health threat in tropical nations in the best of times.

Indonesia, the nation most severely battered by the disaster, started spraying around camps for the displaced January 14, and health workers hope the effort comes in time.

“Short term, we’re trying to prevent an epidemic and it may already be too late, Richard Allan told the Associated Press. Allan is director of Mentor Initiative, a public health group that fights malaria epidemics.

Shock, when coupled with poor living conditions in affected areas, is also likely to have weakened people’s immune systems, Allan said, making them even more susceptible than normal to malaria and other diseases.

Measles could be another serious problem if it should start moving through the crowded living conditions in camps for the displaced.

“When you have to put people into displaced-persons camps, said Tom Fry of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, “you want to make sure that there's a good measles vaccination program in place so that you don't have those types of outbreaks.

Fry discussed health issues in the region during a January 14 press briefing conducted from the U.S. military’s Command Support Facility in Utapao, Thailand. “So it isn't just malaria that we're concerned about, it's preventative measures across the health spectrum.

Fry said the DART teams are keeping a close eye out for measles outbreaks. The U.N. Children’s Fund began round-the-clock efforts to vaccinate youngsters last week in camps around Banda Aceh. Measles are also a concern in Somalia, according to USAID.

WHO issued another health warning January 14, harkening back to the scare that seized the region last year at this time – bird flu. Avian influenza in Asia forced the culling of more than 100 million birds over the last 12 months. It was a devastating economic financial loss for poultry producers, but more worrisome for health officials was the virus’ capability to leap species.

The Asian bird flu scare left 45 people infected over the last year, with 32 fatalities. International health officials have been on edge about the potential for a deadly flu pandemic since the SARS scare two years ago.

The primarily Southeast Asian nations affected by bird flu are not those pounded by the tsunami, but WHO warns of the risks of importing the virus from infected areas and insuring that sick poultry doesn’t enter the food chain in the tsunami zone.

The tsunami aftermath leaves many potential causes for disease, but the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced January 14 that consumption of fish is not one of them.

Rumors are rippling through affected nations about the danger of eating fish, suggesting that sea creatures have been feeding off the bodies of victims washed to sea. The FAO says it’s not true.

"In light of the information available, there is no evidence, epidemiological or of any other nature, of an increased risk of fish- and seafood-borne illnesses in the affected regions," the FAO said in a statement from Rome.

Because of the ordinarily high rate of fish consumption in the region, FAO suggests that avoidance of fish could lead to nutritional deficiencies. The Rome-based agency did urge consumption of only clean, healthy-looking fish.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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