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Thursday, December 09, 2004


Relief reaches stricken areas
but medical crisis shaping up

Wrecked hospitals and clinics in storm-battered northeastern Luzon and dirty drinking water are raising fears of a medical crisis after more than 10 children died, health authorities warned Wednesday.

A Coast Guard ship, with medical facilities, has docked in the port of Real in Quezon as two US Navy Seahawk helicopters flew shuttle missions between Manila and the worst-hit towns along the east coast of Luzon.

Relief workers said water and medicines are scant in Real, Infanta and General Nakar, the towns that bore the brunt of the storms and typhoon “Yoyong” last week.

Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said the disaster area has so far been spared any outbreaks despite the thousands of people crowded into evacuation centers and the disruption of water supplies.

“What is a concern to us is the destruction of health facilities in the worst affected areas,” he said.

Dayrit said the hospital in Infanta was left “nonoperational.” Journalists who visited the area earlier in the week said it was half-mired in mud, medicines and intravenous bottles lying in the dirt.

Many local clinics were also damaged and local health personnel displaced by the storms and floodwaters, which still cover much of the region.

“The health situation can deteriorate anytime because of the destroyed property,” said Dayrit.

The UN Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization have expressed concern about the health of those crowded into relief centers.

According to Unicef more than 10 children have died of diarrhea or dysentery in evacuation centers and health risks were growing for lack of drinking water.

The UN agencies said there was a huge risk from lack of potable water and a threat of malaria from stagnant water and the weather.

“We have recorded more than 10 [deaths]; therefore there is a huge mortality risk because there is not much drinking water,” said Damien Personnaz, spokesman for Unicef in Geneva.

There was limited access to drinking water and living conditions in some 348 evacuation centers “are extremely bad,” Personnaz said.

Dayrit said health workers had been sent to the ravaged towns along with supplies of medicine and drinking water to avoid any outbreaks.

But he said overcrowding in the evacuation centers was decreasing as more people were returning to their homes.

In Infanta Rotary has set up a clinic in the local school to administer medical aid.

The center, staffed by volunteer Red Cross workers, doctors from Manila and civilian nurses, is still in dire need of medicines.

One nurse who did not want to be named said the situation was very difficult. “There is no potable water and medicine is in short supply.   The children are already starting to come down with colds and we had to have two children flown out this morning for Manila to be treated,” the nurse said.

About 40 Marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based on the Japanese island of Okinawa, landed in Clark Air Base overnight, where US and Filipino authorities set up a base of operations, US military spokesman, Capt. Dennis Williams, said.

Hundreds more Marines and sailors, most of them maintenance, medical and support personnel, were en route from Okinawa onboard C-130 transport aircraft, helicopters and a US ship, Williams said.

US forces “will remain only as long as necessary for the Philippines to conduct sustained disaster relief,” a Pentagon statement in Washington said, adding that the troops will also provide potable water, medicine, tents, blankets and generators.

“This is a serious endeavor. The safety and well-being of the Filipinos are a top priority and we’re responding as best we can in as speedy and effective way,” Williams said, adding that it will take a few days for the US forces to assemble and coordinate with Philippine authorities.

But the Philippine Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Restituto Padilla, said about six US transport helicopters could be in the air as early as Thursday.

“We have warehouses full of goods that need to be transported,” he said.

Most of the destruction was wreaked by typhoon “Winnie,” which blew through northeastern provinces on November 29, killing at least 689 people and leaving 715 missing.

Yoyong struck the same region three days later, killing 51 people and leaving 39 missing.

Mayor Arsenio Ramallosa of Real said the town needs food, water and medicine as well as tents and tarpaulin for shelter. But he added that relief supplies were flowing into the city, replenishing items that had run out.

He said workers clearing roads that were blocked by landslides were slowly making their way to Real, but that he was told by engineers that large boulders may have to be blasted with explosives.

Most of Infanta remained covered in mud, and hundreds of survivors crowded a school converted into an evacuation and medical center. Intermittent rain and high winds were hampering cleanup operations and threatening to ground air support.

Nenita Ruidera, 67, a survivor, jostled for a kilo of rice which she said she would try to stretch for several days. “I would have to make porridge with it so it would last long,” she said.

Ruidera, along with her four children and four grandchildren, had survived the mudslides but said many remained sick and should be evacuated.

On Tuesday night two US C-130 Hercules transport aircraft arrived at Clark carrying tons of food and clothing for victims of the storms.

Twelve more US military helicopters from Okinawa are expected to join the relief operations within the next few days.

A seven-man US “combat lifesaver team” has also arrived to help storm casualties.
-- AP and AFP

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Harold Mejilla, Alan Zoilo Belizario, Errol Laciste
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