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Myanmar's growing peril: Disease

The government says conditions are normal. But health workers are bracing for the worst.

DEDAYE, Myanmar - Myint Hlaing's family bathes and cooks with water from an irrigation ditch fouled by human waste and a rotting cow carcass.

His 10-year-old daughter drinks bottled water donated by aid groups, but she still suffers from diarrhea. Meanwhile, his family and other cyclone survivors endure daily rains in tattered thatch huts as the monsoon season nears.

Myanmar's junta insists that health conditions are normal in Myanmar's devastated Irrawaddy delta. But in many areas of the delta, they are a recipe for disease.

"Shelter is the most important thing we need," Myint Hlaing said yesterday. "There are more and more mosquitoes here. We are afraid of getting dengue fever."

A relief group, Church World Service, has reported finding elderly and child survivors of the cyclone dying from dysentery in some areas because many have no choice but to drink dirty water. Other groups have detected a number of ailments including pneumonia, malaria, cholera and diarrhea.

Save the Children UK has warned that 30,000 children in the delta were severely malnourished before Cyclone Nargis struck, with thousands facing starvation in the next two or three weeks. The monsoon season, which begins next month, adds yet another challenge.

"The rain is a real problem," said Eric Stover, lead author of a critical report published last year about Myanmar's health system. "The water is rising up, and the latrines are just outside [flowing] into the water, and there's livestock around. That's the perfect breeding ground for diarrhea and cholera."

UNICEF has been canvassing the area and has reported a growing number of diarrhea cases - up to 30 percent of young children in one township. Myanmar's Ministry of Health has started vaccinating some children in camps against measles, another big threat.

The World Health Organization says it still does not have a clear medical picture because tight government restrictions have kept the delta off-limits to its foreign experts. Remote villages accessed only by boat remain the biggest question mark because many still have not been reached more than three weeks after the storm.

Yesterday, U.N. officials expressed hope that they could soon be able to get help to more than one million cyclone survivors still waiting for food and shelter.

Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian operation in Bangkok, Thailand, said assistance could start flowing to those who need it most in the next few days if the junta quickly allowed foreign experts into devastated areas. The isolationist government has barred nearly all foreign aid workers and international relief agencies from the hard-hit Irrawaddy River delta since Cyclone Nargis hit.

Referring to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's announcement Friday that the junta's leader had agreed to let international aid workers into hard-hit areas, Horsey said: "It is critical that that gets translated to practical access on the ground. The signs so far are good."

International aid groups were starting to move out to those areas, he said, "but of course it's very early and we must make sure that this continues."

The Red Cross says at least 1.5 million people, many of them hungry and ailing, remained homeless in the low-lying delta. Official government estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with an additional 56,000 people missing.

"It remains a race against the clock," said Maureen Birmingham, a WHO epidemiologist in Thailand.