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Threat from Disease in Tsunami Area Reduced

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the rapid, efficient international response to its warnings of potential epidemics of disease in tsunami-affected regions has succeeded in heading off the worst. The U.N. health agency says governments and aid agencies must not let down their guard.

Soon after the tsunami struck East Asia, the World Health Organization warned that 50,000 or more people could die from epidemics of diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, and respiratory illnesses.

The Head of WHO's Crisis Unit, David Nabarro, says once the international community grasped the enormity of the disaster it responded quickly with supplies of safe water to prevent water-borne diseases, it upgraded sanitary facilities, and provided medicine.

"The collective effort of the governments, the aid agencies and local communities has together created a situation where we will not get a second wave of deaths, because we have now got the systems in place to make it very, very unlikely that we will get any enormous outbreak of disease," he said.

The tsunami that struck 10 countries in the Indian Ocean region has killed more than 250,000 people. The biggest death toll is in Indonesia, followed by Sri Lanka.

Dr. Nabarro warns everyone must remain in a high state of alert to be able to respond quickly to future health emergencies.

But he notes the emphasis in Indonesia and Sri Lanka is shifting from communicable diseases to psychological trauma. He says thousands of people will be in need of long-term counseling to help them come to terms with their losses and learn to rebuild their shattered lives.

He says the WHO also is concerned about the potential of malaria and dengue fever getting out of control.

"We always said that malaria and dengue would be a big problem three to six weeks after the disaster,” he added. “We have a dengue outbreak at the moment in Jakarta and we are getting reports, again isolated reports, of mosquito breeding in parts of Aceh."

Dr. Nabarro notes that malaria protection must be provided to households and insecticides made available to the communities at risk. He says an immediate goal is to see that all health services in all parts of tsunami-affected areas, even the most isolated, are up and running within the next 60 days.