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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Traumatized children at risk for infection

By Anupam Srivastava

© UNICEF India/2004
Three children injured by the tsunami share a bed in a Tamil Nadu hospital.

TAMIL NADU, India, 21 March 2005 - Sahai Radhika has her eyes wide open, but she is not talking. The 12-year old girl lies in the lap of her father Krishtarajan and looks away when you try to talk to her. For three days she has been suffering from a high fever. She has been lying in the sand or in her father’s lap in the Nagarcoil relief camp in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu where thousands were killed by the Indian Ocean Tsunami.  Around 700 fishermen are still missing.  

“She has had a fever since the day we were hit by the sea,” Krishtarajan says. Radhika knows that many of her friends did not survive. “I know she has been thinking about them all the time,” adds her father. He is certain her fever is related to the trauma she has endured.

Even though hundreds of other children in the camp look cheerful and play in the sand, they have not overcome the trauma of running for their lives with the sea chasing them. Kabin, 7, engages playfully with his friends at the camp but his parents say that he is “quieter and more reserved.” He does not wonder far from them and he has been talking in his sleep and sometimes wakes up screaming. 

“We have lived all of our life near the sea and our children were never afraid. How will they go back and live in the same village again,” his father Joseph, a fisherman, wonders.

In the Sri Ram Hospital near Nagarcoil, three brothers -- Sangar, Raju, and Vijay  -- shift around restlessly despite their injuries.  Laxmi, their mother, described how the boys went toward the sea when the waters receded and ran when the sea charged at them.

© UNICEF India/2004
12 year-old Radhika has had a high fever since the tsunami struck. Her father, Krishtarajan, believes it is due to trauma.

“They may not know it but they are all scared,” she says of her sons who are sharing a hospital bed. When asked if they would like to return to their village, the boys’ smiles vanish.

Unfortunately, trauma is only treated in camps when the symptoms are obvious. “We are referring patients for further treatment if we find that they need it very badly. We are worried about infections and epidemics,” Dr. Kali Silvy, a local doctor, says.

With overcrowded conditions in relief camps and few toilets available, camp organisers are struggling to maintain good hygiene standards. In the Zionpuram camp in Kanyakumari, there are only three toilets for 2,500 people.  “We are taking precautions in cooking, but face limitations in terms of providing sanitary toilets,” Balaji, a retired professor and camp organiser, says.

A UNICEF team camping out in the area has made field visits and is preparing to install temporary toilets in the camps in Tamil Nadu, where tens of thousands of people are staying. Toilets are essential, especially since most of the survivors won’t be able to return to their villges in the near future.

“Where do I go back to?” Seseiya, a fisherman, says as he breaks down. Michael Ramesh, another fisherman from the village of Pallam says that unless the Government assured them that the “tsunami would not be repeated” he would not go back.

Declining hygiene levels put children at greater risk of contracting disease. UNICEF is currently in the process of negotiating a relief package with its partners and the Government which would help provide more sanitary conditions in the camps and temporary shelters - an important step in helping the devastated villagers resume some sense of normalcy.




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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