As rotting bodies stack up and contaminate water supplies across Asia, fears grew yesterday that sickness will pile more misery on a region reeling two days on from its worst disaster in living memory.
With infrastructure, including latrines and water wells, in the worst hit areas in tatters, international organizations urged that the thousands of bloated corpses littering beaches, streets and makeshift morgues be disposed of quickly to stem the threat of disease.
"The people should be buried and the animals should be destroyed and disposed of before they infect the drinking water. It's a massive operation,"
said UN disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland.
Experts said that though the risk of epidemics varied from country to country according to their standards of hygiene, hot temperatures, poor to nonexistent sewerage and spoiled food provided breeding grounds for germs.
In particular, the decomposing bodies contaminating water would provide ideal conditions for water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria.
"The biggest health challenges we are facing are the spread of waterborne diseases, particularly malaria and diarrhoea, as well as respiratory tract infections," said International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies health official Hakan Sandbladh.
Food shortages were also shaping up as a major concern, especially in the more remote parts of Asia devastated by the 10m-high waves that slammed into nine countries on Sunday.
In Indonesia's Aceh province, near the epicenter of the undersea earthquake that sparked the tsunamis and where up to 25,000 are feared dead, a local police chief from the cut-off town of Meulaboh suggested the worst had yet to be seen.
"If within three to four days relief does not arrive, there will be a starvation disaster that will cause mass deaths," Rilo Pambudi said in an e-mail, released by officials in Jakarta.
"The situation in Meulaboh and its surroundings is in an emergency," he said.
Across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, where 12,000 people were killed by the wall of water that smashed into the island, drinking water wells along the country's coastal regions were badly contaminated.
"We need things like water purification tablets and safe drinking water. We also need equipment to clean water wells," said government minister Susil Premajayantha.
Sri Lankan officials said their biggest challenge with 375,000 families displaced was sanitation.