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Health Officials Warn that Greatest Risk for Tsunami Survivors is Disease Outbreak

Aid agencies are struggling with the scale of the Asian tsunami disaster; latest count of killed nears 80,000 people.

As the death toll from the Asian tsunami soars, relief workers warn of even greater tragedy ahead if disease breaks out on a wide scale. Typhoid, malaria and cholera epidemics now pose the gravest risk. The risk is particularly acute in the worst hit areas of Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, where a combination of surging seawater, hot and humid weather, and decomposing bodies means many water supplies are contaminated.

Jan Egeland, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator says all of the affected countries are taking steps to prevent this from happening. "By and large, they all are focusing on (the) water and sanitation sector which has been largely destroyed along these coastlines and which is causing a tremendous humanitarian disaster in the wake of the tsunami itself."

Matthew Parry of the American Red Cross International Disaster Response Unit says his organization is among those sending water purification equipment to the countries devastated by the tsunami. "…And those systems primarily focus on providing potable water to hospitals and to the people themselves, through mobile distribution points. But getting potable water into hospitals is of paramount importance at this point."

Bodies, many of them of children, still fill beaches and choked hospital morgues, raising fears of disease. Many are already decomposing in the heat, underlining the growing health risk. Efforts are underway to bury the dead in mass graves, but are being slowed by the enormous job of identifying the bodies. Meanwhile, relief supplies are beginning to pour into the stricken nations, but it could be days before they reach victims in the most isolated areas. The United Nations says the disaster is the worst in recent history and it is mounting the largest relief effort ever.