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WHO warns up to five million people without access to basic services in Southeast Asia

Following tsunamis, US$40 million urgently needed to avert public health disaster

Photo: Keystone/AP

The World Health Organization (WHO) today said urgent action is needed to address the emerging public health needs of those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia. Between three and five million people in the region are unable to access the basic requirements they need to stay alive - clean water, adequate shelter, food, sanitation and healthcare.

To address the immediate public health needs and respond to this major catastrophe, WHO estimates that it will need US$ 40 million.

"Four days after the tsunami struck the coasts of Southeast Asia, we now have a clearer picture of the extent of the devastation and human suffering which has occurred," said Dr LEE, Jong-wook, Director-General, WHO. "This is the most serious natural disaster to affect the region for several decades. The health needs of the populations affected are immediate and substantial."

"Unless the necessary funds are urgently mobilized and coordinated in the field," commented Dr David Nabarro, WHO Representative for Health Action in Crises, "we could see as many fatalities from diseases as we have seen from the actual disaster itself. The tsunami was not preventable, but preventing unnecessary deaths and suffering is."

While information is still scarce after the devastating tsunami, WHO and its United Nations and nongovernmental organization partners are completing preliminary assessments of the human consequences of this disaster. Current estimates put the number of dead at more than 80 000, with as many as 300 000 people injured, many need urgent medical or surgical treatment. Countless other survivors are at risk of infectious diseases or aggravating existing health conditions. In Indonesia, for example, on the coast of Aceh, only one hospital remains operational. No electricity or fuel is available. In Sri Lanka, much of the public health infrastructure in coastal areas is reportedly damaged and functional units are overwhelmed.

WHO has deployed emergency teams in the most severely-affected countries; Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives, working on developing estimates of the damage done to health infrastructures and of the affected populations needs' in terms of medical supplies and care.

Based on preliminary assessments, the following are the immediate and longer-term priorities in terms of health concerns:

  • Providing medical assistance to the hundreds of thousands of injured people. Some hospitals are overwhelmed by the influx of injured. Doctors and health workers are working around the clock to cope.
  • Ensuring that clean water in adequate quantity is available to all affected populations, together with adequate and sufficient sanitation facilities in temporary camps and settlements to reduce the risk of outbreaks of different diarrhoeal diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery.
  • Ensuring that survivors who have lost their homes do not live in conditions that are overcrowded, unhygienic and/or dangerous. Such conditions increase the risk of acute respiratory infections that can quickly develop into pneumonia and emerge as major causes of death - especially among children and old people, if left untreated. Across the region, essential medicines and trained health care workers must be easily accessible for all affected population.
  • Strengthening disease surveillance for epidemic-prone diseases including malaria and dengue fever. Flooding and stagnant water will create favorable conditions for the mosquito vector and heighten epidemic risk for individuals and communities in overcrowded conditions and temporary shelters.

WHO is helping local and national authorities respond to the human crisis and enable survivors to stay alive; to help the international community focus its aid so that it can be used quickly and well; and to ensure that health services are re-established as soon as possible.

WHO has already dispatched 33 Emergency Health Kits, providing basic medicines and equipment to more than 330 000 people for three months. Priority is given to ensure that essential medicines, rehydration salts, intra-venous fluids and other vital items are available where needed.

For more information contact:

Fadéla Chaib
Telephone: +41 22 791 3228
Fax: +41 22 791 4181

Mr Oliver Rosenbauer
Telephone: +41 22 781 3832
Mobile phone: +41 79 500 6530

Mr Gregory Hartl
Telephone: +41 (22) 791 4458
Mobile phone: +41 (79) 203 6715

Chris Black
Telephone: +88 216 51 191 015
Mobile phone: +41 79 472 60 54

Mrs Harsaran Pandey
Mobile phone: +91 9810695878