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In flood-devastated Pakistan, 3.5 million children are at risk of disease

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010
A mother and son in front of their makeshift tent in a relief camp in Karachi, Pakistan.

By Priyanka Pruthi

KARACHI, Pakistan, 17 August 2010 – More than 3 million children are at high risk of deadly water-borne diseases in Pakistan, making them the most vulnerable victims of one of the worst natural disasters in history. 

As the waters continue to rise, The United Nations has warned of a “second wave of death” from the devastating monsoon floods in the days to come. 

Water-borne illness

As human misery continues to mount, experts are now concerned that a cholera epidemic could break out in flood-affected areas. The World Health Organization (WHO) has asked Pakistan’s Government to investigate a reported case of cholera in the north-west Swat Valley. WHO projects that up to 1.5 million cases of diarrhoeal diseases – including up to 140,000 cases of cholera, 150,000 cases of measles, 350,000 cases of acute respiratory infections, and up to 100,000 cases of malaria – could occur over the next three months.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010
Women wait in a relief camp in Karachi, Pakistan. They were displaced by recent flooding that has devastated the country.

UN humanitarian spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said millions face diseases, including hepatitis and diarrhoea-related illnesses.

"What concerns us the most is water and health,” he said. “Clean water is essential to prevent deadly water-borne diseases. Water during the flood has been contaminated badly. There is a shortage of clean water.” 

"UNICEF is currently providing enough clean water for 1.3 million people every day, but millions more need the same services,” added UNICEF Representative in Pakistan Martin Mogwanja. “We urgently need to scale up the distribution of water. If we are not able to do so because of lack of funding, water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery will spread and begin killing affected populations, especially children, already weak and vulnerable to disease and malnutrition."

Acute respiratory infections, skin diseases and malnutrition rates are already dangerously high in many flood-affected regions of Pakistan.

Call for global support

Nearly one fifth of Pakistan has been ravaged by floods that killed an estimated 1,600 people and affected 15 million in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh provinces. The flooding began more than two weeks ago in the north-west of Pakistan and has swept south across a quarter of the country. The international community is working rapidly to address the needs of those affected, but funding shortfalls are jeopardizing the humanitarian operation in the country.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010
A family sits in a relief camp in Karachi, Pakistan, where millions are at risk of disease.

“Our emergency operation in Pakistan needs $47 million for urgent and immediate needs over the next three months,” said Mr. Mogwanja. So far, this number has not been reached.

After visiting the flood- hit areas in Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to provide “unprecedented assistance” to those affected by the floods.

“This has been a heart-wrenching day for me,” said Mr. Ban. “In the past I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.” He then recalled scenes of washed-out roads, destroyed bridges and people marooned on tiny islands.

The UN has announced a further $10 million in support from its Central Emergency Response Fund, bringing its contribution to a total of $27 million since the crisis began.

Essential supplies

UNICEF is distributing emergency assistance in the provinces that have been worst affected by Pakistan’s floods, ensuring that the urgent needs of children are met. The organization is working with the government to ensure that basic water, sanitation and hygiene services are repaired to prevent major disease outbreaks.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010
A woman sits in her tent after being displaced by flooding in Karachi, Pakistan.

Among other provisions, UNICEF is distributing high-energy biscuits to prevent malnutrition and related diseases, said spokesman Abdul Sami Malik.

“We are in a life-saving phase,” he said. “Children are always vulnerable. They cannot control their thirst, they will drink any type of water and may get watery diarrhoea, cholera, malaria and other diseases.''

UNICEF has provided relief supplies worth $360,000 – including health kits, nutrition supplies, midwifery kits and tarpaulin that are expected to benefit 5 million affected people. The organization is also supplying an oral rehydration solution as a home-based treatment for diarrhoea, but notes that this treatment is in short supply due to funding constraints.

Given the increasing danger of disease outbreaks in the three most populated and flood-affected districts of Balochistan – Sibi, Jafarabad and Naseerabad –UNICEF has initiated polio and measles vaccinations at its relief centres. UNICEF, in coordination with the health department and WHO, has also established a mechanism of surveillance on the early warning of diseases.

Up-hill task

To escape a second surge of floodwaters, more than 300,000 people were evacuated from Jacobabad district in Sindh province.

Meanwhile, floodwaters continue to swell and the situation is worsening with every passing hour. Though relief camps have been set up by the humanitarian community, hygiene services have yet to reach the majority of the affected population. Living conditions among the country’s displaced population are dismal, and continued rains are causing additional flooding, hindering food airlifts and the restoration of road links to inaccessible areas.

Persistent bad weather continues to impede access to affected populations – even in those areas reachable by road – and many of the affected areas remain accessible only by air.



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