Disease Hits Cyclone Refugees

More than 1 million Burmese survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis are still living with scant food or water as the threat of infectious disease mounts. Many say they have yet to receive any official aid and are managing as best they can on handouts from well-wishers and non-government groups.

Burmese-cyclone-survivor-305.jpg A young survivor of the cyclone Nargis carries a jerican in Kyaiklat, in the Ayeyarwady Division of south-west Burma. The United States sent its first aid flight to Burma on May 12 but President Bush denounced the nation's military rulers over their slow response to the devastating cyclone. Photo: AFP/ Khin Maung Win
AFP PHOTO / Khin Maung Win

Emergency medical supplies and food are still only trickling into Burma in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which has left 1.5 million people in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Amid mounting calls from abroad for the junta to permit a full-scale emergency aid operation in Burma, U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs warned of “a second catastrophe” facing the homeless, as disease and starvation began to take their toll on already  stunned cyclone survivors.

As survivors run out of clean water for drinking and bathing and as food grows scarce, the Burmese people themselves are providing as much relief as they can through donations, according to interviews with RFA’s Burmese service.

“The group went to Myaung-mya to donate a total of 300 rice bags, 20,000 clothes, and an uncountable number of dried-noodle packets,” a worker with a charitable group in Rangoon said by telephone.

“They went to donate these things...We went to Kungyan-gone, Hlaing Thaya, and South Dagon,” said U Thuya, a prominent comedian also known as
Zargana, referring to three districts in the former capital, Rangoon.

Trouble from authorities

But even meager donations from Burma and overseas that did get through are running into problems with the authorities, according to residents of Rangoon.

“We were told not to distribute uncooked rice. We’ve been harassed. So we distributed cooked rice instead,” U Thuya added.

An eyewitness at a makeshift refugee camp in Bogalay township at the heart of the disaster said no one had seen any sign of foreign aid in the area—and authorities had ordered refugees to leave schools and monasteries by Wednesday, regardless whether they had homes to return to.

“In Thakayta and Kyauk-tan...people from the refugee camps were crying [after being told] that by the 14th the victims will have to leave the monasteries and schools,” the woman said. “That’s for the entire country. That’s for sure.”

“In Bogalay township, there are a total of over 8,000 refugees. They are in monasteries. There are 54 monasteries in the town of Bogalay,” she added.

She said refugees in Bogalay, who were desperate for clean water, had yet to receive any foreign aid at all.

“I saw only rice at the refugee camps. That was donated by private donors,” she said. “What we urgently need now is medicine to purify water. We can’t get that in Burma at all. So, if we go to Bogalay, we have to buy many water bottles. That’s a problem for us. We urgently need that medicine to purify water.”

Vast aid needed

A survivor of the cyclone Nargis cries in Kyaiklat, in the Ayeyarwady Division of south-west Burma on 12 May, 2008. The flow of international aid into Burma, which says 62,000 people are dead or missing, has increased in the past two days. Photo: AFP/ Khin Maung Win
AFP PHOTO / Khin Maung Win
According to U.N. disaster relief spokeswoman Byrs, Burma needs to import tens of thousands of tonnes of rice to feed the waves of internal refugees now sheltering in schools, monasteries, and other public buildings in cities in the south of the country, and around the former capital Rangoon.

So far, only 361 tonnes of food has been flown into the country by the World Food Programme (WFP), and only 175 tonnes of that has been distributed.

“We distributed cooked rice instead. Also we distributed raincoats. We donated warm clothes donated by [movie star] Ko Lwin Moe. The most effective thing was donating medicine—various medicines donated by [pharmacy company] Htet Lin. We were able to give them various medicines,” U Thuya said from Rangoon.

He said outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera were now common among refugees.

“Everyone has an upset stomach and many people are getting cholera—and some rashes. I don’t know what they are, but they have tiny bumps that are itchy,” he said.

“That’s on both adults and children. So we have started to donate medicine for those itchy bumps. Then I think the stomach problems are caused by the water. So we are donating water-purifying medicine,” he said, adding that the group would be joined by 12 doctors who planned to test for cholera among refugee populations.

U.N. surveillance

A U.N. plane arrived in Rangoon on Monday, after several days of bureaucratic delays on the part of government officials, with a cargo of food aid and medical supplies, including a Diarrheal Disease Kit, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.

The WHO said it had deployed 11 surveillance officers to affected townships in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, which was devastated by a 12-meter storm surge when Nargis made landfall in Burma.

A further five officers have been assigned to Rangoon district for the next two weeks to assess the situation and to deliver health relief items.

Burmese survivors and those trying to donate supplies to them have repeatedly complained that the quasi-government USDA group has appropriated supplies, preventing volunteers from delivering food, water, and medicines directly to those who need them, saying they would take charge of distribution.

USDA denotes the  Union Solidarity Development Association, ostensibly a semi-official civic group comprising backers of the junta. USDA members are routinely dispatched by the authorities to perform various tasks.

U Thuya said: “Whenever we tried to donate uncooked rice, they started looting. So we could no longer donate uncooked rice.”

“We now have to cook the rice and distribute it. If you take bags of rice, they’d loot from us. We don’t know who these people are. They’d just loot from us,” he said.

Zinc sheets given to junta

Another sought-after commodity, zinc sheets for repairs to houses devastated by the storm, was also being monopolized by the military, a source close to the junta said.

A person close to high-ranking military families in the Air Force at Mingaladon, Rangoon, said such families were being well looked after with large numbers of zinc sheets being handed out free to those whose houses were destroyed.

“Only those houses that suffered a lot of damage got 10 sheets of zinc roofing. Those houses that were damaged slightly, losing four or five or 10 sheets, got only about two sheets. Even then they had to pay. One sheet of zinc is 4,000 kyat,” the woman said.

U.N. health kits

WHO said it had delivered another two Inter-Agency Emergency Health Kits to the worst-hit cities of Bogalay and Labutta.

It will send four more kits to Pyapon, Ngaputaw, Myaungmya, and Ma U Bin townships, where tens of thousands of refugees, many of them with infections in untreated injuries, are sheltering in makeshift camps in schools and other public buildings with no little or no medical care.

Health officials have requested a list of the essential supplies and medicines that need to be replenished urgently. WHO said it would work with the health ministry to establish a revolving stock of drugs to ensure the continuing availability of essential medicines and supplies.

Long-term trauma

In addition to their increasingly urgent physical needs, cyclone victims must also contend with extreme psychological trauma, which often hits the youngest victims hardest, according to U.S.-based trauma expert Elizabeth Carll.

“For the children, it’s very difficult—especially if they’re orphaned and have lost their family,” said Carll, a clinical psychologist in New York and author of Trauma Psychology: Issues in Violence, Disaster, Health and Illness.

“The long-term effects are especially difficult for something like this kind of cyclone, because it impacts not only on the individual family but the whole socio-economic structure,” Carll said. 

Involving victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami in rebuilding their communities helped alleviate trauma, she said, but poverty and deprivation will make that process longer and more difficult in Burma.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service and by Richard Finney. Translation by Than Than Win. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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