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Scores Die in Papua New Guinea Disease Outbreaks

Authorities in Papua New Guinea are battling simultaneous outbreaks of influenza, dysentery and cholera that have killed about 120 people. Thousands of others have been infected by the diseases in Morobe province on the remote northern coast of the South Pacific nation.

At least 13 people have died in Papua New Guinea's first reported outbreak of cholera. At least 200 others have contracted the disease, which is caused by contaminated food or water and can be fatal if not treated.

The nation's fragile public health system also is struggling to cope with a rising number of influenza cases. So far, 60 people have died and almost 4,000 villagers have been infected by what has been identified as seasonal flu. And a severe strain of dysentery has claimed 30 lives.

Medical officials fear the situation is about to get much worse.

The diseases have struck isolated communities that lie to the north of the capital, Port Moresby.

In the regional city of Lae, clinics have been set up in tents to cope with what is expected to be a flood of patients.

The international charity, Doctors Without Borders, runs the clinics. Coordinator Sally Stevenson says that public education is the key to stopping the spread of cholera.

"It's also trying to overcome the fear of cholera, because it's a new disease and it's unknown and it strikes quickly," she said. "So there's quite a deal of fear in the community that needs to be overcome."

As in many developing countries, poor transportation and geographical isolation hamper efforts in Papua New Guinea to assess the extent of the various infections.

The government has declared a public emergency. Health officials say that setting up command posts in the disease zones will allow more precise monitoring of the outbreaks.

Normally, Papua New Guinea, a mountainous, jungle-covered nation, contends with a high incidence of dengue fever and malaria. In recent years, the spread of AIDS has put stress on an impoverished health system.

The nation, a former Australian colony, has a rich culture, where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken, more than 10 percent of the world's total languages.