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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Quick tsunami response prevented water-borne epidemics

© UNICEF/HQ05-0064/Bagla
In the village of Akirapettai in Tamil Nadu, water storage tanks like this one were installed in relief camps.

NEW DELHI, India, 17 March 2005 - Shortly after the tsunami struck countries on the Indian Ocean and killed hundreds of thousands, the World Health Organization issued a grim warning that water-borne diseases could double the death toll.  But three months after the tragedy, no epidemics of diarrhoea, cholera or measles have been reported in Tamil Nadu, Andaman, or the Nicobar Islands - the most severely affected regions of India.

Approximately 350,000 children survived the threat of serious disease. “The relief work carried out so far has given us enormous satisfaction,” said UNICEF Tamil Nadu State Representative Tim Schaffter.

Initially, conditions were wholly unsanitary and conducive to an outbreak of disease.  Thousands of bodies washed up on shores for days after the disaster, water pipes were uprooted, hand pumps broken, and survivors were forced into crowded relief camps with inadequate potable water and toilet facilities.

“Outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera in the affected areas would not have surprised anyone,” said Schaffter.

UNICEF staff were already on the ground in the disaster-struck area and quickly began preparations for delivering safe water to the survivors. In cooperation with the Tamil Nadu government, the organization began distributing water tanks to the relief camps, and provided chlorine tablets for water treatment.

© UNICEF/HQ05-0063/Bagla
A UNICEF health worker teaches a mother to make a rehydration drink for her baby.

During the first week of January, UNICEF began constructing low-cost toilets near the relief camps.  “We trained 100 volunteers for the construction of low-cost toilets. The volunteers then helped the community to construct these toilets,” said UNICEF Water and Sanitation Programme Chief Lizette Burgers.  Not only did the toilets improve sanitation, they also promoted toilet use in areas which did not have a high percentage of household toilets.

As a parallel effort, UNICEF and government doctors also began the task of vaccinating children against measles and giving them vitamin A doses to increase their immunity. They were able to vaccinate the great majority of children in Tamil Nadu, Andaman, and even in the remote Nicobar islands. 

Survivors were also educated on proper hygiene and sanitation practices. “We led a campaign on the importance of hand-washing before eating meals and after going to the toilet,” said Schaffter. UNICEF provided 45,000 bars of soap, 21,575 plastic buckets, and 1,575 mugs to relief camps in India.

Even though conditions have improved, UNICEF continues to take preventive measures. In malaria-prone areas in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, UNICEF has provided 10,000 mosquito nets to those living in relief camps. Another 10,000 are presently being procured for distribution. UNICEF is also trying to reach children in all the remote villages of the region for vaccination and assistance.

At present, many families in India still live in temporary shelters and sanitation remains a concern. But the wails heard in villages after the tsunami are slowly giving way to the laughter of children.




March 2005:
Tim Schaffter UNICEF Representative in Tamil Nadu State discusses how the money donated to UNICEF is being spent to help children.

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