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Disease Threat Grows with Aceh Rains

The U.N. aid workers and Indonesian health authorities have moved quickly to prevent an outbreak of measles among children in refugee camps in Indonesia's devastated Aceh province. But relief officials warn a greater health threat is coming from torrential rain in the province.

The U.N. Childrens' Fund - UNICEF - vaccinated more than 1,000 children in less than 36 hours to prevent an outbreak of measles in refugee camps in Indonesia's Aceh province.

The vaccination effort followed the discovery of at least one child infected with measles. Unchecked, the virus could sweep through camps filled with children already weakened by injury and emotional distress.

Some 80,000 Indonesian children are among the residents of makeshift camps set up after a deadly earthquake and tsunami two-weeks ago killed more than 150,000 people across the Indian Ocean.

"It is extremely important that we keep this in perspective," said John Budd, a UNICEF spokesman working with the relief efforts. "It is only one [case] and UNICEF and the Ministry of Health have acted very quickly in order to actually head off the possibility of an epidemic."

Highly contagious, measles kills up to five-percent of children who contract it in developing countries.

But Mr. Budd says heavy monsoon rains are increasing fears of outbreaks of water-borne diseases, such as typhoid and cholera.

"What is making the situation even harder is the fact that it is pouring with rain. The water table is coming up and in many instances people are living in a swamp," he added. "We are very concerned that some sort of diarrheal-type of epidemic could easily break out."

Aid agencies hope to soon complete 24 improved camps - including modern water and sanitation facilities - to house hundreds of thousands of people living under tarpaulins and very basic shelters.

Michael Diamond, the regional director of the child aid group, Plan International, says in Aceh, a priority now is to get children back in school to help them recover from the trauma. "Through the schools the kids can at least talk and then do the hygiene - water, sanitation, trauma counseling for the kids," he said. "Get them back into some sort of regular schedule."

Mr. Diamond says the schools can help children re-establish a normal life, even though it may be months before many are living in proper housing.