UN Sees Major Disease Threat in Burma
UN Sees Major Disease Threat in Burma
|By JONATHAN LYNN / REUTERS WRITER / GENEVA||Friday, May 30, 2008|
The United Nations is stepping up efforts to combat malaria, cholera and other diseases in Burma that are now the main threat to millions left homeless by this month’s cyclone, a senior official said on Thursday.
Stagnant water in the wake of the cyclone and storm surge, which left up to 2.4 million people destitute, has created ideal breeding conditions for malaria and dengue, said World Health Organisation assistant director-general Eric Laroche.
|Saw Htu, who lost all his cattle during cyclone Nargis, poses in his damaged house in Denongho near Pyapon on May 20, in an isolated area only accessible by boat which received neither government nor foreign aid. Foreign aid workers pressed into the Irrawaddy Delta, testing the junta’s pledge to open up areas where one million people have yet to receive aid three weeks after the cyclone. (Photo: AFP)|
Laroche heads the international health operation formed to deal with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma’s fertile Irrawaddy Delta region and the former capital Rangoon on May 2.”The major threat in health now is communicable disease,” he said the day after his return from Rangoon. It was also the monsoon season in Burma, a time when malaria, dengue fever and cholera outbreaks tend to occur, he said.
The government was treating any cases of acute diarrhea as potential cholera, he said. Non-governmental organizations have reported outbreaks of cholera, but none has been verified and the government has not confirmed any, he said.
The WHO is leading a partnership with official, private and non-governmental organizations in Burma to tackle the crisis. It has approved a $28 million action plan over six months for the program, including $10 million directly for WHO operations.
Another priority was to rebuild Burma’s health infrastructure.
The government had already called on private firms to help rebuild schools and hospitals and reconstruction was taking place surprisingly quickly.
Hunger for those left homeless or without the ability to grow food is also a health risk.
“The more malnourished you are, the more inclined you are to be infected,” he said.
Laroche said the Burmese authorities had become much more open about letting in aid workers and granting access to the affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta.
The military regime had been criticized for dragging its feet on allowing a large-scale international effort to tackle the after-effects of the cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing.
“It is very clear that things have changed… Obtaining visas is much easier now,” he said.
His words contrasted with those of the UN humanitarian coordinator in Burma, Dan Baker, who said earlier that red tape was still obstructing access to the delta.
Nearly a week after junta supremo Than Shwe promised he would allow in “all” legitimate foreign aid workers, the United Nations said only seven UN expatriate staff had made it out of Rangoon on Wednesday, Baker told Reuters.
“Following what’s been agreed during the last week, I mean that’s just really not acceptable,” Baker said of bureaucratic red tape hampering their access to the delta where up to 2.4 million people were left destitute by Cyclone Nargis on May 2.
Some analysts say it may be out of fear that opening up the country would loosen the grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup.
Other aid groups also faced problems getting out of Rangoon.
The International Federation of the Red Cross, which has some 30 foreign experts in Rangoon, is still waiting for a green light to us them to establish aid hubs in the delta.
Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow said Myanmar Red Cross workers were doing a tremendous job but they had little experience in handling such a complex major disaster.
“The people we have who we can deploy have seen this before,” he said of the foreign staff who have expertise in areas such as health, water, sanitation and shelter.
“They can quickly make decisions, advise and evaluate. They bring experience and know how,” he said.
Baker, who visited the delta on Tuesday on a government-sponsored trip, said larger towns such as Bogalay and Laputta appeared to be getting a steady stream of supplies.
But in one town there only appeared to be enough rice for a couple of days.
“People were making signs like putting their fingers to their mouth as though they were hungry,” he said.
There were no indications of major outbreaks of disease, beyond some cases of diarrhoea and respiratory infections, he said.
He said a joint assessment by the United Nations, Asean and the Burmese regime was expected within 2 weeks and will “hopefully solve this question of, are there people who haven’t been reached at all? If so, where are they?”