Race against time to avert killer epidemics, says WHO

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The Independent Online

Diarrhoea cases were reported to be rapidly increasing yesterday in the tsunami disaster zone and the United Nations warned that there could be only 48 hours to prevent the major outbreak of waterborne diseases.

The World Health Organisation said that millions of survivors faced a race against time to receive sufficient supplies of clean drinking to avert epidemics of conditions such as cholera, dysentery and dengue fever.

As aid organisations dispatched medical supplies, including millions of water purification tablets, to the coastal rim of the Indian Ocean, there were growing reports of diarrhoeal outbreaks in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

Doctors played down the risk of epidemics posed by the thousands of unburied bodies, saying that disease-causing pathogens lasted only a short time after death.

Instead, they warned that contaminated fresh water and common stomach upsets will weaken survivors already facing low or non-existent food supplies.

Harsaran Pandey, the WHO spokeswoman in the disaster zone, said: "If a person gets dehydrated from diarrhoea, then that is when it gets serious and a person can die. I could say many, many people could die if we are not able to reach people in time with safe water. Diseases are spread by contaminated water, drinking water and water used to clean food."

Health experts said that an increase in the number of diarrhoea cases was to be expected after a natural disaster but that it was vital to make preparations for outbreaks of fatal disease.

A WHO spokesman said: "We have only a narrow window to ensure safe water supplies are secured. In many cases it could be as little as the next 48 hours."

The WHO has sent 33 emergency "kits" to the Indian Ocean, each of which is capable of providing medical care for 10,000 people for three months.

Aircraft from Britain, Germany, America and Japan arrived yesterday in Sri Lanka and Indonesia carrying water purification plants which can each provide supplies for 100,000 people.

But organisers said there were also concerns that poor hygiene will leave young children at risk of respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO's head of crisis operations, said: "We remain really concerned. It's a normal anxiety that we have at this time. We've got a clearer understanding of the needs, but we've also got a clearer concern about the supplies."