Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the U.N. World Health Organization, warned that disease could take more lives than the waves. "The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities, he said.
The main enemy is pestilence that can come from many different sources and cause a bewildering number of deadly diseases. Many are contracted from contaminated water that, according to Gerald Martone of the International Rescue Committee, can carry more than 50 diseases.
These include typhoid fever, dysentery, and one of historys greatest killers, cholera. Cholera causes a combination of diarrhea and vomiting, and death can come within hours. Typhoid fever and dysentery can be treated with antibiotics, though such drugs have limited use with cholera. With both dysentery and cholera, the primary treatment is oral rehydration with a mixture of water, salts, and sugar.
Once any of these take hold, there can be hell to pay for years to come. The key to prevention is killing the disease-causing organisms in water, preferably with chlorine. Boiling works temporarily, but any untreated water can become quickly contaminated.
Without our help, those now looking for the dead will be among them.
Draining the pools would be terribly laborious, especially since mosquitoes can breed in nothing more than a footprint. The best answer would be spraying with DDT. Unfortunately, environmentalists have demonized DDT based essentially on unfounded accusations in a 1962 book, Silent Spring.
Yet notes Paul Driessen, author of Eco-Imperialism and senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality, "DDT is not only probably the most effective mosquito killer on earth, its also been tested for literally decades and has never been shown to harm people." Its questionable whether it even has any impact on the environment. There are other insecticides available, Driessen observes, but "they dont have the repellency of DDT and a single DDT spraying lasts six months."
A Portrayal of Cholera from 1912
One bright note is that "contrary to popular belief," according to WHOs Pan American Health Organization, "there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of disease epidemics." That means we can have priorities other than disposal of remains. However, adds PAHO, bodies can pose a threat if cholera was the cause of death. Rapid corpse disposal would then be imperative.
It sounds trite, but every day truly counts. There is a tipping point with pestilence. Once a critical mass of illness is reached, the numbers explode. Yet the organization jostling to take the lead in providing relief, the U.N., has in previous crises proved itself to be a snail with arthritic knees. Look at what it accomplished or more to the point failed to accomplish in Rwanda and Darfur. The more who die, the faster the U.N. twiddles its thumbs.
The U.S., other governments, and private relief organizations must be willing to push the anemic Kofi Annan aside and deal directly with governments in the disaster areas. We can play politics later; the time to save lives is now.