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Aid workers focus on staving off disease outbreaks in Pakistan flood zone

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1569/Zaidi
A child sleeps on a bed surrounded by floodwater at his home in Khwas Koorona village, located in in north-western Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. An estimated 2.5 million of the province’s 3.5 million residents have been affected by the disaster.

NEW YORK, USA, 4 August 2010 – As relief efforts accelerate in provinces of north-western Pakistan inundated by torrential rains this week, floodwaters are slowly receding and some stricken areas are finally becoming accessible. The Government of Pakistan and its humanitarian partners – including UNICEF – are now assessing the full extent of crisis.

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At the same time, weather forecasts are predicting heavy rainfall for the coming week, and the government has issued new flood warnings for many parts of the country.

UNICEF Pakistan Programme Specialist Dr. Mohammed Rafiq returned today from a visit to flood-affected communities in Peshawar, capital of the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is the area hit hardest by the flooding, with some 2.5 million people affected in that province alone.

“Nobody has any memory of a worse disaster,” Dr. Rafiq said in a telephone interview with UNICEF Radio.

Concern over waterborne illness

He went on to note that food prices have already begun to rise in the aftermath of the floods, which devastated large areas of agricultural land. In response, UNICEF Pakistan has already distributed high-energy biscuits to thousands of children.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1559/Zak
A boy carries water from a tanker in a flood-affected village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan. To prevent disease outbreaks, UNICEF is providing hygiene kits, safe drinking water, plastic buckets and other water-and-sanitation supplies.

In addition to addressing nutrition concerns, UNICEF and its partners are working to prevent any rise in cholera, scabies, diarrhoea or other diseases that spread easily among people living in unsanitary conditions with unsafe water sources.

Waterborne diseases are especially threatening, and potentially deadly, for young children.

Hygiene kits and water tankers

But communication in the flood zone has posed challenges for aid workers, according to Dr. Rafiq. Because there is no mobile phone reception in the affected areas, he contacts local communities via radio twice a day to help inform flood victims about protecting themselves and their children from disease.

“I tell them that if they have a water tank on the third floor or higher, they should treat this as the most precious thing in the world and only drink from it,” said Dr. Rafiq. “If people do not have this, then they can collect rainwater. If they have to drink floodwater, they should use water-purifying tablets.”

To help alleviate water and sanitation problems, UNICEF has provided hygiene kits and water tankers to flooded areas. It has also repaired more than 70 wells benefitting 800,000 people and supported the rapid deployment of 24 medical camps equipped to serve approximately 1 million people.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1558/Zak
Children queue up for safe water from a UNICEF tanker in Jala Bela village, located in the Peshawar district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the province hit hardest by recent flooding in Pakistan.

Communities cut off

Another major challenge is getting vital health information and other messages to people in areas that may now be cut off from roads and communication channels.

“Our biggest concern is the places we have not been able to reach yet,” said Dr. Rafiq. “Roads have been destroyed and bridges washed away, which makes our work even more difficult. We have not seen an epidemic of any disease yet, but God forbid that there is one somewhere we have not been able to reach yet.”

Even in areas already reached by emergency aid, many children are suffering from the impact of their terrifying experiences during the disaster.

“They were grabbed out of their beds by parents in the middle of the night and had to run to safe ground as water poured into their houses,” explained Dr. Rafiq. “The only warning they had was from local mosques telling them to leave. They ran without their shoes and without their belongings.”

Long-term impact

About 1.4 million children have been affected by the floods in Pakistan. Once the waters subside and people find shelter, it may still take time before schools are up and running.

Despite efforts by UNICEF and its partners to restore schooling as quickly as possible in order to help children recover from the crisis, many students could face a disruption of their education.

“We will feel the effects of this disaster for years to come,” said Dr. Rafiq.




4 August 2010:  UNICEF Pakistan Program Specialist Dr. Mohammed Rafiq speaks about his recent visit to the flood-affected Peshawar area.
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