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Millions of children across South Asia on brink of a health crisis


UNICEF today highlighted the looming health crisis facing millions of children as monsoonal rains have left many stranded by floodwaters and in urgent need of fresh water, food and shelter.

“Entire villages are days away from a health crisis if people are not reached in the coming days,” said Dr. Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s health chief in India. “Many of the affected areas are home to poor communities who suffer from lack of sanitation and hygiene year round. Stagnant waters left by the floods are a lethal breeding ground for diarrhoeal and waterborne diseases at potentially epidemic levels, skin infections and other public health threats such as malaria, leptospirosis and dengue fever. Children, who make up 40 per cent of South Asia’s population, are particularly susceptible.”

More than a week into some of the worst monsoonal flooding to have hit South Asia in some time, Bangladesh, India and Nepal are still reeling from flash flooding that has affected some 30 million people, mostly women and children. Though flooding is an annual event throughout South Asia, this year’s monsoons have been of a startling magnitude and intensity.

Ongoing relief operations have been hampered by difficulties in reaching remote communities and villages, most are accessible only by boat or through air drops. Thousands of homes, schools, hospitals have been either damaged or lost – as have roads and vital infrastructure. Water sources in the affected areas are either contaminated or still submerged and people are relying on drinking dirty surface water to meet their basic needs.

India, the largest country affected, alone has almost 20 million people impacted by the flooding in Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Fleeing the rising waters, hundreds of thousands are camped out on elevated highways, railway tracks and rooftops. UNICEF is transporting medical teams by land and boat and is immunising children against measles, but remains concerned about delivering clean water to the many stranded by floods due to the sheer magnitude of people affected. Food relief airdrops are also constrained by the problem’s scale and scattered displaced communities in inundated villages.

Even where rains have turned into a drizzle, such as in northern Bihar, stagnant water is posing a serious threat of water-borne diseases for about 11 million people, including 1.5 million children under five years of age. In Bihar it is believed that 2 million people have been displaced from their homes by flooding, including some 300,000 children.

Uttar Pradesh has also been hit hard, with roughly 2,634 villages experiencing flooding, including 1,340 completely marooned. Inundated areas of Assam still have stagnant water, putting populations at risk of diarrhoea and other water borne diseases. And the high concentrations of people in camps and temporary shelters has raised the risk of a measles epidemic.

UNICEF is providing tarpaulin sheets, oral rehydration solutions, water purification tablets, emergency medical kits and delivery kits and other supplies, but the needs will be long term. Many thousands could remain homeless for weeks.

Bangladesh has been coping with flooding for two weeks, with 8 million affected and the situation potentially worsening rapidly over the coming days. Twenty-six rivers, especially in and around the capital Dhaka, are flowing above danger levels, with flood waters heading south and towards low-lying central areas. Some 1.2 million acres of cropland have been damaged. UNICEF is concerned that diarrhoea, cholera and skin diseases are spreading. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in relief camps or on raised highways.

UNICEF response includes high energy biscuits for children and pregnant and lactating mothers; essential drugs; and plastic sheets and family kits (utensils, clothing) to help people displaced from their homes. Supplies pre-positioned following the 2004 floods will be used to address water and sanitation needs.

Flooding across Nepal has now affected over 300,000 mostly in rural areas of the Terai along the southern border with India. According to official figures since torrential rain started over two weeks ago, 95 people have died in 33 districts (almost half the country) affected by flooding and landslides.

While water levels have receded in many districts, the delivery of vital humanitarian assistance is being hampered by security concerns, (particularly in the eastern Terai area). Damage to access routes and infrastructure has created a major challenge for the Government and aid workers in their attempt to reach the most vulnerable populations. Food, potable water and temporary shelter are the major requirements. There are increasing reports of outbreaks of water-borne diseases, viral fever and skin infections.

UNICEF has delivered oral rehydration salts, tarpaulins, buckets, blankets, hygiene kits and water purification supplies that can clean water for some 60,000 over two weeks in the country’s flood-and landslide-affected areas.


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