Tsunami’s ‘second wave of death’ – disease – can now be largely avoided

The top United Nations emergency official said today he believed the relief effort could now avoid the feared “second wave of death” from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami – the toll taken by epidemic diseases – and he hoped Indonesia would revise its March deadline for the use of foreign military in the operation. “The second wave is being averted in most places as we speak,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said of diarrhoea, measles, malaria and pneumonia that are the biggest threat in the aftermath of such a disaster, with clean drinking water in short supply and tens of thousands living in crowded emergency camps.

“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,” he told a news briefing in a daily update on the 26 December tsunami, which has so far claimed 160,000 lives, half of them children according to revised figures of the toll which originally put the percentage at only a third.

But it is “still an uphill battle” in Aceh, Indonesia, the worst-hit region, which now accounts for 118,000 of the overall death toll in the dozen counties ravaged by the destructive waves, with 2,000 to 3,000 more bodies being retrieved every day and a “phenomenal” number of those unaccounted for, he added.

“The number of dead could be doubled easily in terms of missing,” he said, although he noted that many will be found because they have sought refuge in the mountains and forests. In addition more than half a million people have been displaced.

“It’s not even close to being over as an emergency phase in Aceh and Sumatra and therefore it is a very different operation to that of the other places,” Mr. Egeland stressed, noting that elsewhere relief teams had reached all the devastated areas and the operation was moving on from the emergency stage to its second phase.

“Now the really hard work starts and that is to provide a life for the people and not only feed them and prevent disease,” he said of those efforts.

In Indonesia, where operations are still mainly airborne because of the destruction of infrastructure, “we need to get relief teams on the ground if we are going to prevent the second wave toll of disease and casualties,” he added. But he reported some progress in reaching the ravaged region of Meulaboh by a road that still could not accommodate the necessary fuel trucks.

Asked about Indonesia’s deadline for all foreign military relief operations to leave by 26 March, he said: “I hope that our Indonesian friends and colleagues will accept it is the needs of the population that will decide when military assets should be phased out completely.

“There will be many more weeks for a very substantive military presence,” he added, noting that military assets at the moment focussed on helicopters, transport planes and the production of millions of litres of clean water.

“All of these things can be taken over by civilians and we will need less of that but I would foresee that we may need the military people to give us fuel, to give special kinds of hardware very quickly to certain areas beyond March and I hope really we can have an agreement on that,” he said.

Asked about reports of the relative lack of aid by Muslim countries, Mr. Egeland replied: “What I have welcomed really is to see that there is now a discussion in several Muslim countries, including several Gulf countries” that they should do more both with regard to the tsunami and to other humanitarian needs.

“I would say to the tsunami relief effort the Gulf countries have provided very well, but I’d like to see them give more elsewhere,” he added.

The UN General Assembly will hold a special plenary meeting next Tuesday, expected to be addressed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to consider strengthening coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance with a special focus on the tsunami. The session was requested by members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

From United Nations

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