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Health Experts Evaluate Global Tsunami Response

Rapid supply of clean water and efficient sanitation saved lives after the Indian Ocean tsunami last December, but lack of coordination led to duplication of aid efforts and failed delivery of necessary supplies. These are some of the lessons discussed at an international conference of health experts this week in Thailand.

Health experts are meeting this week to review the mistakes and successes of last December's tsunami relief effort. The meeting is taking place on the island of Phuket, where hundreds of people were killed by the huge waves.

The waves hit a dozen countries on the Indian Ocean rim and killed some 200,000 people.

United Nations health experts say more people could have been killed had public health not been prioritized early on. Feared outbreaks of infectious water-borne diseases from contaminated water supplies failed to materialize, as governments and relief agencies rapidly set up basic sanitation, supplied clean water and immunized children.

Dr. David Nabarro heads the World Health Organization's department that responds to health issues during crises. He says the measures were effective.

"Different organizations quickly understood the importance of water and sanitation and proper shelter and basic public health activities such as immunization," he said. "This was in part because of the work that has been done over the last few years to build up a common set of principles on humanitarian work."

However, experts say coordination among the flood of aid agencies that rushed to help was lacking. They say this led to failed delivery of appropriate supplies and duplication of work, only adding to the chaos of the disaster.

Dr. Nabarro says he is confident that when the next disaster strikes, the world will be able to respond better. But he urges governments to invest more in disaster preparedness, and he says while rapid action is essential, long-term reconstruction is also important.

"Too many people are still living in homes that are unsatisfactory or even under tents, and they have to get back to getting proper roofs over their heads and getting their livelihoods back," added Dr. Nabarro.

The meeting will also tackle such issues as military and civilian aid collaboration, dealing with mental trauma after disasters, and the use of forensics in identifying the dead.