Bloomberg News

Disease Outbreak Sparks Fears in Philippines’ Storm-Hit Mindanao

January 04, 2012

Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The Philippines is struggling to help about 429,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao after the country’s worst storm in three years as the first outbreaks of disease are reported and more rains forecast.

Tropical Storm Washi, locally known as Sendong, killed 1,257 people on Mindanao, many as they slept, as rivers overflowed and inundated coastal cities in the early hours of Dec. 17. As anger over a slow government response mounted, Civil Defense Administrator Benito Ramos said by phone yesterday that five people have died from leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that spreads in water contaminated with rat urine.

“We have a humanitarian crisis and the diseases could get worse,” Red Cross Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang said in a telephone interview in Manila. Distribution of emergency goods has been poorly coordinated, with evacuees sometimes not getting “what they need” or agencies delivering the same supplies twice, Pang said.

At least 171 people are being treated for leptospirosis as almost 8,000 families contend with poor sanitation inside cramped evacuation centers, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said in an 8 a.m. report today. Of 724,729 people affected by the storm, 429,045 are to some extent reliant on aid provided inside or near the centers. Ninety-eight people remain missing, the disaster management agency said.

‘Lack of Coordination’

President Benigno Aquino has been criticized for his government’s reaction to the storm. There was “a lack of coordination between the local government and national government agencies even in the aspect of information dissemination, which would have enabled residents to prepare for the coming typhoon,” Senator Aquilino Pimentel said in a statement.

Aquino’s spokesman, Ricky Carandang, said by telephone Dec. 19 that the chief executive attended a Christmas party held for his security staff for “a few minutes” as the death toll from the storm mounted.

Sanitation is a problem in homes wrecked by the storm and in evacuation centers, where up to 30 people have to share a portable toilet, Ramos said. In some residential areas, people are digging their own latrines, he said.

Health workers are conducting “rapid” health assessment and immunizations for tetanus, polio and measles, the disaster risk agency said.

Flash Floods

A low-pressure area estimated to be 400 kilometers (249 miles) southeast of General Santos City, also in Mindanao, is threatening rain showers and thunderstorms that could trigger flash floods and landslides on the island, the country’s weather bureau said in a 5 a.m. forecast today.

The bureau is also setting up a system that will alert communities in Manila to possible flooding from monsoon rains, its chief, Nathaniel Servando, said in an e-mailed statement on Jan. 2.

Pimentel, a lawmaker from Cagayan de Oro, said he would organize a summit to help the people of Mindanao ready for storms. The island is rarely hit by the typhoons that regularly strike other parts of the country.

The United Nations may again appeal to the international community for aid, UN Resident Coordinator Jacqui Baddock said by phone in Manila today. The response to its call for $28.6 million in disaster aid for storm victims has been slow, with most donor agencies on vacation for the Christmas holidays, the UN said in a Dec. 28 statement.

“Relocation will be the biggest task,” Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said in a telephone interview. “You can’t allow them to return and there will be floods all over again.”

The Red Cross is helping build temporary “tent cities” for 1,000 families and will offer a 7,000-peso ($160) grant to families wanting to start a small business, Pang said. “It is important they they don’t feel like beggars and start fresh,” she said.

--With assistance from Cecilia Yap in Manila. Editors: Mark Williams, Peter Hirschberg

To contact the reporters on this story: Norman P. Aquino in Manila at naquino1@bloomberg.net; Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Clarissa Batino at cbatino@bloomberg.net; Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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