Oxfam warns up to 1.5 million in danger if aid effort cannot reach cyclone victims

“Aid into Myanmar needs to be massively scaled up and it needs to happen now”
Sarah Ireland
Published: 12 May 2008

Risk of disease outbreak increasing daily as Myanmar stands on the edge of a public health catastrophe

International agency Oxfam said today (11 May) that in the coming weeks and months the lives of up to 1.5 million people are in danger in the Myanmar cyclone zone due to the risk of disease and a public health catastrophe if clean water and sanitation is not urgently provided.

“With the likelihood of 100,000 or more killed in the cyclone there are all the factors for a public health catastrophe which could multiply that death toll by up to 15 times in the coming period. In the Boxing Day tsunami 250,000 people lost their lives in the first few hours but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilized a massive aid effort to prevent it happening. We have to do the same for the people of Myanmar,” said Oxfam’s Regional Director for East Asia, Sarah Ireland.

In a message to the Myanmar generals, the international community and those governments who have influence in the region such as Thailand, Ms. Ireland said, “We support a call to lift visa restrictions on international aid agencies wanting to assist disaster affected people in Myanmar. Oxfam and others need permission to work in Myanmar.  We have the skills and expertise to save lives. We are here to help,” said Ms. Ireland.

Citing evidence from previous experiences in disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan earthquake in 2005, Oxfam said that without an immediate injection of life-saving aid such as clean water sources, up to 1.5 million people are at immediate risk from a public health crisis.

In Myanmar people’s resistance to disease is weakened daily because of lack of food and shelter, exposure to the elements and drinking surface water that is more than likely contaminated with human and animal waste.  This creates an effective breeding ground for diseases such as cholera, typhoid and shigella taking hold. Both cholera and shigella is endemic in the region. With floodwaters fouling water supplies and latrines overflowing with human waste all the factors for an outbreak of cholera and shigella are in place.

With people exposed to the elements, huddled together in crowded areas and suffering from hunger other risks such as measles, chest infections, pneumonia and diphtheria could devastate already weakened people, especially the very young. People’s natural resilience is eroded rapidly in these conditions, and the weakest, such as children and the elderly will already be in a highly vulnerable condition.

As the waters recede they become a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes and the accompanying threats. Dengue is rife in Myanmar and mainly occurs from May to October. There were major outbreaks of dengue in 1998, 2001-2 and 2007. The incidence of malaria will also potentially increase. All the five areas worse affected by the cyclone are also regions that have high levels of malaria transmission.

The agency said that if allowed to respond to the crisis, as it has done in so many others, it will have a substantial impact on reducing the risk of disease and saving lives.

“Oxfam is concerned for the millions of men, women and children affected by the devastating cyclone in Myanmar. We and others have decades of experience in disaster response and especially providing water and sanitation to disaster affected people. We are certain the international humanitarian community can make a difference on the ground and that’s why we want to work with the people of Myanmar affected by this terrible disaster,” said Ms. Ireland.

Oxfam said a tsunami-style relief effort would be required in Myanmar. At the end of 2004 the international community started to quickly mobilize thousands of international aid workers as well as massive amounts of aid and relief supplies that landed at airports in cargo planes and at remote landing strips by helicopter or arrived by sea all across the tsunami-affected region. Even in Aceh, a province of Indonesia previously off limits to most relief agencies, aid arrived quickly and moved freely to the worst affected regions.

“Aid into Myanmar needs to be massively scaled up and it needs to happen now. The only way this can happen is if Myanmar lifts visa restrictions and allows international agencies access to the most vulnerable people whose means to cope has been severely impaired because of the cyclone disaster,” said Ms. Ireland.

Notes to Editors

How did Oxfam calculate a figure of 1.5 million deaths? Oxfam calculated that the lives of up to 1.5 million people are in danger if the aid effort cannot reach cyclone victims in the Myanmar cyclone zone. The agency took the number of immediate deaths so far in Myanmar, which is at least 100,000, and calculated that if there was not a massive humanitarian intervention then up to 15 times that number would be put at risk of death in the coming week and months. This of course depends on a number of other variables such as the air temperature, water quality, pre-existing nutritional status of the people affected and vaccinations rates against diseases such as polio. One of the big killers could be cholera. And what’s most alarming and concerning to Oxfam and others is that you cannot vaccinate someone against the deadly disease until there has actually been an outbreak. That’s because there are so many cholera strains and each strain has to be matched with a particular cholera vaccination. The worry is that with little aid and medical assistance getting through there may not be enough health expertise on the ground to ensure a cholera outbreak is met with an adequate response.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:

Surasak Glahan in Bangkok: + 66 818 553 196
Ian Woolverton in Bangkok + 1 917 679 0039
Ian Bray in Oxford: + 44 772 146 1339