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UN Warns of Disease Threat to Flood-Stricken Bangladesh - 2004-08-08

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, warns that flood-stricken Bangladesh is ripe for a major outbreak of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases. The government estimates more than 32 million Bangladeshis have been affected by the most devastating monsoon floods to hit the country since 1998. It says more than 700 people are believed to have died and more than 1.5 million people are still living in shelters.

The water level is going down, but an estimated 40 percent of Bangladesh remains inundated. UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara calls this a particularly dangerous period. He says that when flood waters recede, the water that remains is stagnant and unsafe for drinking.

"Basically the water is polluted in such a way that it affects immediately the health of, especially children in water-borne diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, maybe the risk of cholera as well. Even polio. And, also acute respiratory infections and skin infections," he said.

Mr. Vergara notes there has been a dramatic rise in diarrhea, with nearly 10,000 cases reported a day. He says aid agencies do not have the money to buy enough urgently needed supplies.

For example, he says, government officials estimate that 60 million water purification tablets are needed. However, UNICEF has been able to supply only five million tablets and is scrambling to buy another five million.

Just a few days ago, UNICEF launched an appeal for nearly 13.5 million dollars. But Mr. Vergara says the agency will need three or four times that amount to assist hundreds of thousands of people over the coming months.

"It will probably take a year before Bangladesh gets back to normal," said Mr. Vergara. "So, there will be a need for some massive aid in the next few days for immediate needs in terms of sheer survival of women and children when it comes to water and health.

"But also for the longer term to go back to school and even protection and people getting back to work," he continued. "Do not forget, people cannot access their fields. They cannot go to the office. So also, the economy is at standstill."

Mr. Vergara says women and children are at greatest risk of getting ill. He notes the disruption to routine immunization means that many young children are unable to receive essential vaccinations. Also, he says, adolescent girls and women are at greater risk of urinary and reproductive tract infections because they are not able to maintain personal hygiene.