Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Disease fears rise as tsunami’s toll tops 52,000

As count climbs, WHO expert says aftermath may be equally deadly

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - As the death toll from the epic tsunamis that slammed 11 countries soared beyond 52,000 people on Tuesday, a top World Health Organization health expert warned that diseases could double the natural disaster’s death count before the situation can be stabilized.

The number of dead continued to climb rapidly as authorities in Indonesia added 8,000 fatalities to the death toll there, bringing the total number killed to more than 27,000. India, Sri Lanka and Thailand also added to their death counts as they re-established contact with remote islands and isolated coastal areas and confirmed their worst fears.

The overall figure was expected to continue to climb as emergency workers make their way into inundated and still isolated villages and towns.

Medical supplies, food and water purification systems poured into the region, part of what the United Nations said would be the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen to aid the millions left homeless by the oceanic torrent that battered the countries after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake Sunday off Sumatra.

Disease fears rising
Bodies, many of them children, still filled beaches and choked hospital morgues, raising fears of disease.

Dr. David Nabarro, speaking at a news conference in Geneva, said that the aftermath could prove every bit as deadly as the initial onslaught of the tsunamis.
“There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami,” he said.

He said local hospitals and health services were overwhelmed treating victims of the tsunami and thus less able to cope with people who may fall ill.

"The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities," Nabarro warned.

Robert Bazell, NBC's chief science correspondent, said the health risk for survivors is twofold.
"There is a shortage of clean water and an enormous amount of water left behind. That’s a recipe for disaster from diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which are spread by fecal material that gets into the water," he said. "Also, millions are homeless in a very wet situation; that’s a huge potential for the spread of respiratory diseases and other lesser-known diseases which can kill people, especially children."

In addition to the enormous human toll, the disaster could be the costliest in history, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions are living with polluted drinking water and no health services, he said.

Geographic scope of crisis unparalleled
The geographic scope of the disaster was unparalleled. Relief organizations used to dealing with a centralized crisis had to distribute resources over 11 countries in two continents.

Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas, while warships in Thailand steamed to island resorts. In Sri Lanka, the Health Ministry dispatched 300 physicians to the disaster zone, dropping them off by helicopter.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said the United States was sending helicopters, and an airborne surgical hospital from Finland arrived. A German aircraft was en route with a water purification plant. “A great deal is coming in, and they are having a few problems at the moment coordinating it.”

UNICEF officials said that about 175 tons of rice arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, late Monday and six tons of medical supplies were expected to arrive by Thursday. But most basic supplies were scarce.

Meantime, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday the United States “will do more” to help the victims and said in an interview on NBC's “Today” show that “clearly, the United States will be a major contributor to this international effort. And, yes, it will run into the billions of dollars.”

He also said he regretted a statement by Egeland, the U.N. official overseeing the relief effort, suggesting America was being "stingy".

Initially, the U.S. government pledged $15 million and dispatched disaster specialists to help the Asian nations devastated by the catastrophe.

As the relief effort gained momentum, emergency workers reaching areas isolated since the waves hit were seeing their worst nightmares realized.

10,000 killed in single town
Indonesian teams found that 10,000 people had been killed in a single town, Meulaboh, in Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra island, said Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at the Social Affairs Ministry. Another 9,000 were confirmed dead so far in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and surrounding towns, he said.

In Sri Lanka, authorities said that approximately 1,000 people were killed or missing from a train that was flung off its tracks when the gigantic waves hit.

And in India, rescuers on Tuesday estimated that at least 7,000 people had been killed on the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, with one town losing two-thirds of its population to the rampaging waters.

Sri Lanka's government raised its death toll past 18,700 and feared the final death toll would reach 25,000.

"Dead bodies are washing ashore along the coast," said Social Welfare Minister Sumedha Jayasena, who is coordinating relief efforts. "Reports reaching us from the rescue workers indicate there are 25,000 feared dead, and we don't know what to do."

In Thailand, which had previously reported 1,516 dead, including more than 700 tourists, rescue workers recovered more than 300 bodies on Thailand’s remote Phi Phi Island, a tourist getaway made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach."

Indonesia toll tops 27,000

In Indonesia, the country closest to Sunday's 9.0 magnitude quake that sent walls of water crashing into coastlines thousands of miles away, the count rose to 27,178.

"Thousands of victims cannot be reached in some isolated and remote areas," said Sidik, the national disaster director.

Indonesia’s Aceh province near the epicenter exemplified the challenge to aid workers. The government until Monday barred foreigners because of a long-running separatist conflict.

Communications lines were still down, and remote villages had yet to be reached.
“There is not anyone to bury the bodies,” said Steve Aswin, an emergency officer with UNICEF in Jakarta. “I heard that many bodies are still in the hospitals and many places. They should be buried in mass graves but there is no one to dig graves.”

India's Home Ministry said 4,371 died. But, the International Red Cross estimated around 6,000 deaths in the south Asian country.

Scores of people were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives. Deaths were even reported in Africa — in Somalia, Tanzania and Seychelles, close to 3,000 miles away.

At least 12 Americans among dead
At least 12 Americans were among the dead, and U.S. embassies in the region were trying to track down hundreds more who were unaccounted for.
Desperate residents on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island — 100 miles from the quake’s epicenter — looted stores Tuesday. “There is no help, it is each person for themselves here,” district official Tengku Zulkarnain told el-Shinta radio station.

Elsewhere, Indonesian soldiers and volunteers combed through destroyed houses to try to find survivors — or bodies.

In Galle, Sri Lanka, officials used a loudspeaker fitted atop a fire engine to tell residents to place bodies on the road for collection.

Sri Lankan police waived the law calling for mandatory autopsies, allowing rotting corpses to be buried immediately. “We accept that the deaths were caused by drowning,” police spokesman Rienzie Perera said.

In Thailand’s once-thriving resorts, volunteers dragged scores of corpses — including at least 700 foreign tourists — from beaches and the remains of top-class hotels.A large proportion of southern Asia’s dead were children — as many as half the victims in Sri Lanka, according to officials there.

Lack of warnings questioned
Sunday’s quake of 9.0 magnitude sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one caused by the 1883 volcanic eruption at Krakatoa — located off Sumatra’s southern tip — which killed an estimated 36,000 people.Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late. The waves hit Sri Lanka and India more than two hours after the quake.

But governments insisted they couldn’t have known the true danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the head of the British Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies called for talks on creating a global early warning system for tsunamis.

The U.N.'s Egeland said the issue of creating a tsunami warning system would be taken up at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, from Jan. 18-22.
Tsunamis as large as Sunday’s happen only a few times a century. A tsunami is a series of traveling ocean waves generated by geological disturbances near the ocean floor. With nothing to stop them, the waves can race across the ocean like the crack of a bullwhip, gaining momentum over thousands of miles.


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