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Burma Facing Serious Health Crisis


The World Health Organization (WHO) warns hundreds of thousands of victims of Burma's devastating Cyclone Nargis face a potentially serious health crisis. WHO and partner agencies are launching a multi-million-dollar, six-month action plan to provide immediate health care and to support longer-term efforts to rebuild the country's ravaged healthcare system. Official figures stand at nearly 78,000 dead and 56,000 missing from the storm. Unofficial estimates of the number of dead and missing are considerably higher. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

About 2.5 million people were affected by Cyclone Nargis.

Several-hundred-thousand people are believed to be without shelter and safe drinking water. And, that is a situation of great concern for the World Health Organization.

Assistant director-general of WHO's Health Action in Crises, Dr. Eric Laroche, says aid agencies will not know the full extent of the emergency until health workers have been able to assess the situation in hitherto inaccessible areas.

But he says it is clear that one of the major threats will be from communicable diseases, such as diarrhea, pneumonia, tetanus, measles and cholera. He says people also are at risk from malaria and dengue fever, which spreads widely during the rainy season.

"If we are not capable of identifying immediately where the first cases may be, it may mean the start of an epidemic. Then we are going to be in big trouble. Why? Because everything has to be in place, treatment has to be in place, and we have to have access," he said.

Dr. Laroche says at least $28 million will be needed to carry out the action plan during the next six months. Under the plan, he says health workers will assess and monitor health needs and strengthen disease surveillance, and respond to outbreaks and other health threats.

He says the cyclone destroyed about 50 percent of the healthcare system in the affected region. He says the plan includes provisions for rebuilding facilities that can withstand any future natural disasters.

Dr. Laroche says it is critical that hungry people get the food they need to remain strong. He warns people who do not have access to food and become malnourished will become too weak to fight off infections.

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