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Wednesday, 29 December, 2004

Disease could double tsunami death toll to over 100,000: experts

Disease epidemics could double the death toll in Asia's tidal wave catastrophe -- which already stands at more than 55,000 -- experts warned as the world's biggest ever relief operation stuttered into life against enormous odds.

It is feared that rotting corpses, smashed sewers and contaminated water combined with a lack of food and shelter, along with mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, could wipe out weakened survivors in their tens of thousands.

"The immediate terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities," said David Nabarro, the top official at the World Health Organisation dealing with humanitarian crises.

"There is a chance that we could have at least as many dying from communicable diseases as we had dying from the tsunami," he added as the horrors from the waves of death which engulfed wealthy tourists and the poor alike continued to be revealed on coastlines around the region.

Food and medicine was already desperately short in many stricken areas and Guido Bertolaso, an Italian civil emergency chief who is coordinating European Union rescue operations, warned the overall death toll could surpass 100,000.

The task of preventing this second wave of suffering is daunting and unprecedented. UN disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland said relief operations would be the biggest in history, urging the immediate burial of human victims and the disposal of dead animals before they infect drinking water.

Yvette Stevens, UN Assistant Emergency Relief aid coordinator, said the international aid needed for the areas around the Indian Ocean was likely to exceed the previous record UN appeal of 1.6 billion dollars.

"We face a huge challenge due to the vast area affected," Markku Niskala, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in Geneva, adding: "We haven't even seen the tip of the iceberg yet."

While the aid organisations made their plans, governments around the world pledged cash and despatched ships and aircraft on rescue and relief missions, the millions of bereaved and homeless faced a seemingly hopeless task of rebuilding their shattered lives.

Half of the confirmed dead -- 27,174 -- were in the Indonesian province of Aceh, close to the epicentre of the biggest earthquake in 40 years which sparked the tsunami waves that devastated coastal villages and resorts across the Indian Ocean.

Another 17,800 were confirmed dead in Sri Lanka, while tolls continued to tick up in India, Thailand, Malaysia, the Maldives and Myanmar.

Thousands of European and American tourists remained unaccounted for and the toll rose with virtually every report from the 10 countries afflicted from Malaysia to Somalia on the African coast.

A total of 91 Europeans were reported dead and another 3,381 were missing from: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

Tourists from several Asian countries were also unaccounted for, and the broad sweep of the tragedy has brought pledges of aid from around the world.

Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said children made up a large proportion of the dead.


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