x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Aid groups fear disease will spread through Philippines

As the number of deaths continues to rise following a terrible storm in the Philippine capital, aid agencies are fearful of disease.

MANILA // As the number of deaths continues to rise following the worst storm to hit the Philippine capital in 40 years, international aid agencies are warning of a new and potentially more deadly problem - disease. The health system has been stretched to breaking point with many public and private hospitals in the Manila metropolitan area flooded and doctors and nurses also affected by the flooding.

A number of foreign governments are said to be sending medical teams and the United States has mobilised medical units from its military base in Okinawa, Japan. The World Health Organization warned yesterday there was a serious threat of disease from filthy water and untreated sewage and is working with the Philippine health authorities to prioritise immediate needs. Arturo Pesigan, an emergency and humanitarian specialist with the WHO, said: "The real problem comes from overcrowding in emergency centres.

"In emergencies like this disease can quickly spread if not watched, especially food and water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea and leptospirosis, a parasite common in dirty water in urban areas." He said there had been some reports of outbreaks of diarrhoea but these could not be confirmed. As the death toll approached 300 last night, the full extent of the disaster was still unfolding. About 2.5 million people in and around Metro Manila are affected of which 750,000 have been displaced, according to Stephen Anderson, the country director of the UN World Food Programme.

Mr Anderson said: "The situation is still very serious. The death toll is rising and there is the threat of further storms. The Philippine government is stretched and is doing the best with what it has but it still needs more." He said about 65 per cent of the displaced people were in the metro area. The weather bureau late yesterday upgraded Tropical Storm Pepeng into a typhoon expected to slam into the far north of the main island of Luzon sometime today. Although it will not directly affect Manila, the city and surrounding provinces can expect heavy rain, which will hamper cleanup operations.

After leaving the Philippines, where it was a tropical storm, Typhoon Ketsana killed 44 in Vietnam and at least 11 people in north-eastern and central Cambodia. The WFP is providing 742 tonnes of rice to help feed 178,000 people in the worst-affected areas and is likely to increase that amount. Tropical storm Ketsana dumped 334 millimetres of rain on Manila in six hours last Saturday, the highest ever recorded rainfall in the metropolis of 12 million.

Floodwaters covered 80 per cent of the city, even areas that never experienced flooding before, stranding people on rooftops and bringing death and misery to rich and poor alike. After the flood waters subsided, Metro Manila and the outlying regions were largely unprepared to handle the evacuees, the injured, and much less the contamination that the floodwaters brought. Shin Young-soo, the WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said WHO experts were assisting the Philippine health authorities in assessing immediate needs to prevent the outbreak of disease. So far there have been no reports of any outbreaks.

During a visit to evacuation centres yesterday, the US ambassador to the Philippines, Kristie Kenney, said the United States was working with the Philippine authorities to see what is needed. A US Embassy spokeswoman, Rebecca Thompson, said the United States was due to begin joint military exercises with Filipino troops this month. "These exercises were humanitarian and would have taken place down south. We will simply move them to where they are needed in Manila." Ms Thompson said the commitment will be small at first - about 100 people, mostly medical professionals.

A spokesman for the Philippine armed forces, Lt Col Romeo Brawner, said five heavy lorries, five Humvees, one bulldozer, two forklifts and 30 US medical personnel had already arrived in the country to help in flood relief. The US forces would bring other relief goods, including US$4 million (Dh14.7m) worth of medical supplies, she added. The Asian Development Bank announced it was providing $3m to help provide clean water, health services, medical supplies and other essential emergency items.

foreign.desk@thenational.com