Subject: WHO warns rains will bring mass outbreaks of epidemics in E. Timor

WHO warns rains will bring mass outbreaks of epidemics in East Timor

DILI, East Timor, Oct 11 (AFP) - The World Health Organization (WHO) warned here Monday that East Timor was at risk from epidemics of measles, cholera and malaria with the imminent onset of the annual wet season. It warned that the rains due any day now could submerge the shattered public health system under a catastrophic wave of disease.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees believed to be hiding in the hills in fear of militia violence and the infrastructure of Dili and other towns in ruins, doctors said the outlook could be grim.

Doctor Buriot Diego said aid agencies were racing against time to install a primitive emergency health care system.

"There is a risk of cholera because the sanitary situation is really bad. A risk of dengue fever as we are in an endemic area, and also a risk of Japanese encephalitis."

Diego added that the collapse of innoculation programs over the last few months when East Timor was in the grip of political turmoil meant measles was also a threat.

Public health systems and services are nearly non-existent in East Timor.

In the capital of Dili alone 90 percent of the buildings have been destroyed, many people are living in the open, and despite humanitarian aid agency efforts to distribute materials for shelter, many people would have little defence against prolongued heavy rains, the WHO says.

WHO Doctor Moira Connolly said the threat of epidemics had arisen because of "the collapse of the health system inside Dili" and the fact that thousands of refugees were cut off from humanitarian aid in areas not yet deemed secure by the multinational force in East Timor.

She said three cases of severe malaria had been detected outside the city of Dili in the past three days, and one of the patients, a man, was in a coma in hospital.

"We are in a situation where we are going into the malaria season," she said, adding people's resistance to infection had been lowered because they were living in the open and had a poor diet.

The WHO Geneva headquarters is sending a mobile laboratory to Darwin and experts to East Timor to assess the threat from malaria and other diseases.

She said the danger from disease was present all over East Timor and also in the camps in West Timor to which thousands of East Timorese have fled and where health workers have very limited access.

The only medical facilities currently operating in Dili are run by the Red Cross and different nations in the multinational peace force.

Humanitarian agencies are planning to start mass inoculation programs within weeks but admit that with the approach of the rains, which started in West Timor Monday, their chances of reaching all the people in need are slim.

Stockpiles of drugs and medical supplies are being flown into the territory along with other humanitarian aid from Darwin, Australia.

Connolly said although efforts to treat the sick and to stave off epidemics were underway, it was vital that humanitarian workers can reach refugees in the hills as soon as possible.

"The key issue is access," she said.

The multinational force in East Timor has defended itself against criticism that its operation has been too slow to reach refugees in remote locations.

Leading members of the humanitarian community here however praised force commander Major General Peter Cosgrove for juggling humanitarian concerns with security needs.

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