Refugee Camp

Tsunami-related Diseases
Brigham Leslie 
Part of Waves of Devastation, a class website on the Indian Ocean Tsunami & Global Environmental Injustice, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2005.


The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has claimed up to 300,000 lives. Those lucky enough to have survived the initial impact of the tsunami are still in danger due to disease. Rotting corpses, smashed sewer lines, overcrowded refugee camps and contaminated freshwater supplies in the hardest-hit countries of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia all contribute to the spread of disease. "The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities,'' said Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the United Nations.

Hardest Hit Countries

Infectious Diseases

Body disposal, and the disinfecting of affected areas, was a primary concern in the days following the tsunami. A significant amount of time and effort was spent on this problem. Massive pits and trenches were dug to quickly bury the dead bodies in hopes that the spread of diseases would be minimized. Grave sites and corpses were also sprayed with disinfectant to further combat the spread of disease. However, the total avoidance of disease spread was impossible. Infectious diseases such as yellow fever, diarrhea, cholera, and typhiod fever are just some of the many that threaten survivors of the tsunami.





Cholera - An infectious disease that spreads in areas of poor sanitation. Nearly all of the coastal regions of the affected countries suffer from poor sanitation. Cholera causes a combination of diarrhea and vomiting and death can come within hours after contracting the disease. The primary treatment is oral rehydration with a mixture of water, salts and sugar. Overall, most countries have been successful at avoiding cholera outbreaks.

Typhoid Fever - The main cause of typhoid fever in disaster zones, and results from sewage contaminating the drinking water. It mainly affects the elderly and the weak who consume contaminated food and water. The December 26 earthquake, along with the wall of water that hit shore, caused sewer lines and holding tanks in many coastal areas to rupture, allowing raw sewage to mix with freshwater sources. Toilets are nearly non-existent in hard-hit regions. Chlorine has been used to kill the disease-causing bacteria in contaminated water.


Skin diseases and rashes - This category includes chicken pox, measles, scabies, fleas, and lice. The overcrowding of refugee camps, combined with the poor sanitation and damp, muggy conditions helps generate such diseases. The fleas and lice are of special concern because they carry typhus, an incredibly dangerous disease that could spread rapidlly if proper measures are not taken. Typhus causes headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and can lead to pneumonia and swelling of the liver and spleen. If untreated, typhus can be fatal. Some prevention measure include topical antibiotics but increased hygiene in affected areas in the primary concern




And the two most dangerous...


Malaria and Dengue Fever

The mosquito-borne diseases of malaria and dengue fever may pose the greatest threat to survivors of the tsunami. Both diseases were already an epidemic in many of the affected countries even before the tsunami hit. The combination of the tsunami and the heavy rains that followed has created the largest mosquito breeding grounds the affected nations have ever seen. Stagnant pools of water dominate the coastal landscape and are optimal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Literally millions upon millions of mosquito hatches will take place in these stagnant pools. Mosquitoes are such a concern that the use of DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) was considered for prevention measures. DDT is the most effective killer of mosquitoes on the planet, but the negative environmental effects of DDT has so far prevented its use. Malaria and dengue fever cause vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, fever, and can both be extremely fatal.




Mosquito breeding grounds



Experts say that the "second wave of deaths" due to the spread of disease has been successfully avoided. Speedy, coordinated action by relief agencies and the governments of the affected countries meant that the numbers affected were much lower than they could have been. Outbreaks of most diseases were confined to refugee camps and most epidemics were avoided completely. However, the some threats still remain and affected areas will be under close observation until the threat from diseases is completely gone.


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