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Thousands of Burmese Cyclone Refugees Leave Disaster Area

At least 10,000 survivors of the May 3 cyclone in Burma have left hard-hit Irawaddy Delta areas, searching for food, clean water, and medicine. The government confirms more than 23,000 dead and at least 37,000 missing. International aid agencies are warning of a health catastrophe if more help does not reach the victims soon. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.

Reports from the scene Sunday said thousands of people have been pouring into the town of Myaung Mya, where the United Nations and some international aid agencies have set up limited relief operations. The government of Burma, while accepting small amounts of aid from other countries, is still refusing to allow foreign relief workers - including much-needed health teams - into the country. Many are waiting in neighboring Thailand for visas.

Sarah Ireland, the regional director of the British aid agency Oxfam, says 1.5 million people are at risk of dying as a result of a lack of food, water sanitation, and basic life-saving supplies that are not being allowed in. She told reports in Bankok, "We understand that a lot of water sources are already contaminated. The ponds are full of dead bodies. The wells have got saline water in them, and something as basic as a bucket is in scarce supply. So, if people don't have things to put the water in order to make sure it's clean and safe, then that's very difficult. We've got lots of buckets on standby in our warehouse in Dubai. We'd really like access to be able to send them in."

Hospitals, which are already strained under a system where the government spends only four percent of its budget on health care, are overwhelmed. Medical workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. Still, the military leadership is allowing no foreign health teams in.

The group World Vision has relief operations up and running in Myaung Mya, and reports facilities there are unable to provide the needed emergency health care to survivors. World Vision's Samson Jeyakumar Mohan says there are signs of a possible disease outbreak among the survivors. He said, "We already have received information that there is a potential outbreak. We already have information that there are diarrhea cases being reported. Cholera is actually a matter of time and it can happen at any time. In terms of weeks, days, we do not know because it's not a situation we think the world has witnessed before."

In past major disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, disease outbreaks occurred despite the relatively speedy arrival of international aid. Relief organizations fear the results in Burma's scenario, where aid is being held up.

Analysts say the Burmese junta's fear of subversion by Westerners is behind its reluctance to allow large quantities of aid and relief workers. Oxfam's Susan Ireland on Sunday urged the Burmese government to put aside political concerns for the sake of its people. "It's not the time for politics. It's the time for getting aid in there and getting people in there who can deliver that aid," said Ireland. "Our experiences in other countries such as Indonesia with the Aceh response was that if governments feel able to raise restrictions, adapt restrictions, look at things like customs and clearance, it will really speed up the aid response. So, we would urge all of those concerned to think about what needs to happen to get that aid out there very quickly."

The Burmese government has allowed very few aid organizations to operate in the country, mainly with Burmese local staff. The group World Vision says it secured only two visas for foreign experts to go in.