Millions in need

GENEVA – Up to 5 million people in the tsunami-struck Indian Ocean region lack access to the basic supplies they need to stay alive, the United Nations health agency said Thursday.

‘This is the most serious natural disaster to affect the region for several decades,’ said World Health Organization Director-General Lee Jong-wook. ‘The health needs of the populations affected are immediate and substantial.’

WHO estimated it needs US$40 million to supply 3 million to 5 million people in the region with clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and health care.

The U.N. World Food Program also said it needs US$100 million for its own relief efforts.

The United Nations plans to launch a combined appeal for all its humanitarian agencies Jan. 6. The world body already has received pledges of US$220 million toward its relief effort, said Margareta Wahlstrom, the U.N. aid coordinator for tsunami-struck countries. Top donors include the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan.

‘We’re trying to set the framework for a coordinated international effort,’ Wahlstrom said.

Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations at WHO, said the money needed to be spent fast.

‘Unless the necessary funds are urgently mobilized and coordinated in the field we could see as many fatalities from diseases as we have seen from the actual disaster itself,’ he said.

‘The tsunami was not preventable, but preventing unnecessary deaths and suffering is.’

The next few days will be critical in controlling any potential outbreak of waterborne diseases in areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunamis, Nabarro told The Associated Press. The incidence of diarrhea was increasing, but was no more than expected at this stage of a natural disaster, he added.

‘We remain really concerned about the situation,’ he said, adding that the main threat to public health drinking water that had been contaminated with feces, which could cause dysentery, typhoid or cholera. Incidence of malaria and dengue fever may also increase, as stagnant water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, WHO said.

‘What tends to happen is wells, water supply systems just get broken and then whatever water you do get is liable to be contaminated,’ Nabarro said.

Governments were still trying to determine how many were killed in the devastation wreaked by Sunday’s quake and the tsunamis it caused. Worst-hit have been Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has created a Web site for donations to its aid appeal.

‘We are concerned about children under 5 and pneumonia because they are probably quite weak children, they weren’t very advantaged children to begin with and so they could be quite vulnerable,’ spokeswoman Sian Bowen said. ‘So it is indeed a huge concern.’

Sporadic cases of diarrhea were being reported, but the number would ‘obviously increase’ as relief organizations penetrate further into the affected areas, said Jamie McGoldrick, an emergency relief coordinator of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. The United Nations was particularly concerned about the situation in Indonesia’s Aceh province, which was close to the epicenter of the earthquake.

‘Agencies are now starting to beef up their presence, and I think more importantly for us, we’re starting to establish presence in Bandah Aceh, which we think is one of the biggest concerns,’ McGoldrick said.

‘We’re actively seeking to strengthen that presence.’

Nabarro added: ‘I’m pretty certain the supplies are there, much more it’s distributing those supplies to where they’re needed, particularly in areas where the infrastructure’s so damaged, like Aceh.’