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Time Running Out for Burmese Cyclone Victims


The United Nations says tens of thousands of desperate survivors of the powerful storm that struck Burma 10 days ago are likely to die of hunger and disease because they are not receiving needed assistance. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the UN's European headquarters in Geneva.

United Nations officials are expressing deep frustration at their inability to get urgent life-saving assistance to survivors of Cyclone Nargis. They say they have relief supplies available and experts standing by who are skilled in disaster management and making sure the goods are speedily and efficiently distributed.

But, what they do not have, they say, is the go-ahead from the Burmese government to spring into action.

Spokeswoman for the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, Elizabeth Byrs, says at least 1.5 million people are severely affected by the disaster. But, less than a third of those at risk have received any assistance.

"The scope of the disaster is huge," she said. "That is why we need to act quickly in order to avoid a second disaster, or maybe a third disaster. The only problem is that the slow motion, the slow reaction from the authorities in the aid flow coming inside the country is a problem because we need more relief assistance."

The United Nations reports nearly 30 planeloads of goods have either taken off or are ready to fly to Rangoon. However, they note, a bottleneck of relief supplies is developing at the airport because the goods are not being offloaded and distributed quickly enough.

Another problem is the ongoing reluctance by the Burmese military authorities to allow foreign aid workers into the country. Byrs says 34 visas are expected to be granted, but it is not clear when that will happen.

The UN estimates Burmese cyclone victims have received about 10 percent of the food and clean drinking water they need. The World Health Organization warns epidemics could break out at any time.

A WHO Spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, says the agency has flown in enough emergency medical supplies to treat 80,000 people for three months.

"We think that with these emergency health kits that are not enough, we can at least avoid some diseases that are killers for children," she said. "For example, diarrhea and all the diarrhoeal diseases, such as dysentery and cholera. We are seeing the first cases of diarrhea and dysentery. But, for the time being, cholera is not reported. And, they are also reporting cases of acute respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia."

Chaib says malaria and dengue fever are predicted to become major concerns in the coming weeks.

People are living in wretched conditions. The lucky ones have plastic tarpaulins to provide them with a bit of protection. Life is expected to get even tougher for them as heavy rains are forecast in the coming days.

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