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UN Warns 150,000 Could Die Without Urgent Care


On Eve Of Tsunami Flash Appeal, UN Warns 150,000 Could Die Without Urgent Care

On the eve of the launch of a massive emergency appeal for countries devastated by last week's Asian tsunami, the United Nations health agency warned again today that 150,000 people are at "extreme risk" of dying from preventable diseases unless access to clean drinking water and other basic needs are restored within days.

"If basic needs, particularly access to safe drinking water, are not urgently restored to all populations by the end of this week, WHO (World Health Organization) fears that outbreaks of infectious disease could result in a similar number of fatalities as occurred due to the direct impact of the tsunami," the agency said, appealing for $60 million to address immediate needs.

With Secretary-General Kofi Annan already in Jakarta, Indonesia, for tomorrow's launch of the flash appeal, UN agency heads drew attention to emerging new needs from protecting women after reports of rape and other abuses to reviving employment on day 11 of the disaster that killed more than 150,000 people in a dozen countries, injured 500,000 more and left up to 5 million lacking basic services.

Warning that millions of people are now under serious threat of disease outbreaks as a result of damaged water and sanitation systems, WHO has already sent millions of water purification tablets to Southeast Asia and mobilized health emergency kits containing basic medical supplies for more than 2 million people for the next three months.

"We are extremely concerned about the ongoing lack of access to basic needs," WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said in Jakarta. "Five million people have been severely affected by the tsunamis. We now estimate that as many as 150,000 people are at extreme risk, if a major disease outbreak in the affected areas occurs. The most urgent need now is to make sure everyone has access to safe drinking water."

WHO has also sent in surgical equipment for more than 10,000 operations and emergency treatment of diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera and dysentery for more than 15,000 people. While this aid is now reaching many locations, access to safe drinking water remains inadequate, particularly in Aceh, Indonesia, the area most ravaged by the tsunami, and the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.

While no disease outbreaks have been reported so far, WHO confirms an increase in isolated cases of diarrhoeal diseases in the region in camps for displaced people. The situation remains much less clear in Aceh where damage to infrastructure has limited access.

Meanwhile the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has called for urgently increased security and better design for humanitarian assistance to minimize attacks on women in affected areas.

"At a time when countless women have been left to head up households and to care for children and other survivors, their security must be a top priority of all affected governments and relief workers," the agency's Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, said after a Sri Lankan-based women's collective reported rape, molestation and physical abuse of displaced women and girls.

UNFPA said the disaster had left women extremely vulnerable in a region where sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation were already issues of concern, and fear of sexual violence could impede the mobility of women, who often bear the primary burden of obtaining food, water and other necessary provisions for their families.

In addition to the immediate strengthening of policing, UNFPA called for the inclusion of women's groups in planning and executing all emergency responses, special facilities in shelters for unaccompanied women and children, including separate sleeping areas, bathing facilities and latrines, and the arrest of perpetrators of violent attacks.

For its part the International Labour Organization (ILO), while noting that it is neither a relief nor an assistance organization, has pledged to help the overall reconstruction effort.

"It is vital that the reconstruction effort involve re-establishing jobs, employment and other forms of economic activity," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said. "We need to get people back to work quickly to avoid exacerbating already existing and chronic poverty in many of the affected areas."

Meanwhile some improvement was reported in the logistical difficulties of getting relief into some of the worst ravaged areas.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the backlog of relief supplies in Banda Aceh was starting to clear. In Sri Lanka logistical problems continued to constrain the relief operation in a region where the monsoon rains had arrived, while in Thailand the number of victims is so overwhelming that it is estimated that it could take several months for complete identification.

In Somalia on the east coast of Africa, the furthest area struck by the tsunami, the remoteness of many coastal communities where roads are extremely poor is hampering relief efforts.

The specific amount of the UN flash appeal, designed to cover emergency needs for the next six months, has not yet been disclosed, but pledges of aid to both the UN and other organizations, for both short- and longer-term operations, has already topped $2 billion.

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