May 29, 2008 / 2:43 PM / 11 years ago

U.N. sees major disease threat in Myanmar

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations is stepping up efforts to combat malaria, cholera and other diseases in Myanmar that are now the main threat to millions left homeless by this month’s cyclone, a senior official said on Thursday.

Children wait while rice is handed out near Kundangon May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Stagnant water in the wake of the cyclone and storm surge, which left up to 2.4 million people destitute, has created ideal breeding conditions for malaria and dengue, said World Health Organization assistant director-general Eric Laroche.

Laroche heads the international health operation formed to deal with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar’s fertile Irrawaddy Delta region and the capital Yangon on May 2.

“The major threat in health now is communicable disease,” he said the day after his return from Yangon. It was also the monsoon season in Myanmar, a time when malaria, dengue fever and cholera outbreaks tend to occur, he said.

The government was treating any cases of acute diarrhea as potential cholera, he said. Non-governmental organizations have reported outbreaks of cholera, but none has been verified and the government has not confirmed any, he said.

The WHO is leading a partnership with official, private and non-governmental organizations in Myanmar to tackle the crisis. It has approved a $28 million action plan over six months for the program, including $10 million directly for WHO operations.

Another priority was to rebuild Myanmar’s health infrastructure.

The government had already called on private firms to help rebuild schools and hospitals and reconstruction was taking place surprisingly quickly.

Hunger for those left homeless or without the ability to grow food is also a health risk.

“The more malnourished you are, the more inclined you are to be infected,” he said.

Laroche said the Myanmar authorities had become much more open about letting in aid workers and granting access to the affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta.

The military regime had been criticized for dragging its feet on allowing a large-scale international effort to tackle the after-effects of the cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing.

“It is very clear that things have changed... Obtaining visas is much easier now,” he said.

His words contrasted with those of the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, Dan Baker, who said earlier that red tape was still obstructing access to the delta.

Reporting by Jonathan Lynn; Editing by David Fogarty

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