Waterborne diseases may kill more people than floods in Pakistan
170,000 people in Sindh province fighting off various ailments, including 52,000 with diarrhea, while tens of thousands more flood victims also face disease
Clutching her pale, weather-worn baby, Hameeda Khaskheli sat in a long queue at a hockey stadium in Khairpur in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, where a relief group had set up a makeshift medical camp.
She is one of tens of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by unprecedented floods caused by record-breaking rains that have inundated half of the country and killed over 1,000 people since mid-June.
Constant rains and raging floods have already destroyed a large chunk of infrastructure and agricultural lands across the country, including tens of thousands of houses, roads, and bridges, and washed away nearly a million animals.
The battered people are now facing an even worse ordeal, the outbreak of waterborne and other diseases.
The Sindh Health Department confirmed in a statement that over 170,000 people, including 52,000 suffering from diarrhea, have been recorded from flood-affected areas of the province. It added that 72 snake-bite cases have also been reported.
"We've been drinking polluted and unhygienic water for several days as everything in our village is underwater," Khaskheli, in her 30s, told Anadolu Agency.
Her Ahmedpur village is one of the hundreds that have been flooded, forcing residents to flee their homes and seek refuge in tents along the roads or in government schools.
The massive floods have not spared even major highways, hampering the transportation of relief goods to affected areas, particularly those in remote ones.
"Everyone (in my family) is sick because of the polluted water and poor food quality. But his (infant's) condition is deteriorating due to diarrhea and vomiting," Khaskheli, a mother of four who appeared helpless, said.
Hundreds of people also formed a line outside the emergency ward of the government-run Civil Hospital, where doctors are struggling to cope with the increasing number of patients.
"I can't sleep for more than a few hours because of the itching and rashes on my body," said Ghulam Mustafa Bozdar, another flood victim.
He told Anadolu Agency that half of the 1,000 people in his village are suffering from diarrhea, fever, and skin diseases.
Dr Zahida Parveen Soomro, head of the hospital, told reporters that the health facility has been designated to treat waterborne and skin diseases due to an increase in the number of patients in the flood-ravaged district.
Running against time
The expected outbreak has prompted the government health authorities and non-governmental relief organizations to set up makeshift clinics and medical camps, mainly in rural areas, to cope with the massive outbreaks of several waterborne and skin diseases.
They have also launched fumigation campaigns in dozens of flood-affected districts, citing an increase in the number of malaria and dengue patients.
"Hundreds of people, mainly children, have arrived with complaints of diarrhea, gastroenteritis, dengue fever, malaria, and skin issues. Thousands more (with similar complaints) are still stranded on the district's inundated outskirts," said Mohammad Aslam Arain, an official with the Al-Khidmat Foundation, one of the country's largest non-governmental relief organizations, which has set up the camp.
Khairpur is located approximately 450 kilometers (280 miles) from Karachi, the country's commercial capital, and is known as the "world's largest date-producing district."
The ongoing monsoon spells have destroyed over 80% of the date crop, causing the local economy to collapse.
Arain, who has planned to set up another medical camp on the city's northern outskirts due to an influx of patients, complained about a lack of medicines, particularly skin-related ones.
"Several essential medicines are not available in the market in many affected districts due to road and rail closures," he said, hoping that supplies would improve in the coming days as water has started receding in several areas.
Reports trickling in from the adjacent Sukkur district are equally disturbing.
"We are running against time as the number of patients is already soaring," said Dr Abdul Aziz Memon, an office-bearer of the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association, a non-governmental organization of doctors.
The association has set up dozens of medical camps in flood-raked areas across all four provinces.
Dr Memon, a skin specialist, told Anadolu Agency that flood waters contaminated with sewage, dead animals, and human waste are causing skin, eye, and stomach infections in the affected areas.
"Those who are already ill, such as heart and cancer patients, are more vulnerable due to their pre-existing conditions," he explained.
'Outbreaks may kill more people'
Health experts have made a passionate appeal to the government and NGOs to send medical equipment and medicines to flood-stricken areas "immediately," warning that the diseases may kill more people than done by rains and floods.
"The outbreaks have already begun. Reports from Sindh and Balochistan provinces are particularly grim, with tens of thousands already suffering from diarrhea, gastroenteritis, malaria, dengue fever, and other skin and eye diseases," said Dr Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), a national organization of health professionals.
Apart from these diseases, he told Anadolu Agency, there is a high risk of hepatitis, cholera, and other deadly infections spreading if immediate action is not taken.
Thousands of pregnant women in flood-battered areas are also taking a toll, putting the country's already frail health care network under extra pressure as a result of infrastructural damage caused by rains and floods, he added.
He believes that the financial and physical losses would increase anxiety and depression among the affected population.
"This all requires timely treatment and ample amounts of medicines, which unfortunately are insufficient to commensurate with the gravity of the crisis," he said, adding that all PMA branches across the country have been directed to speed up efforts to treat flood victims.
"A tougher task is ahead. If these outbreaks are not controlled, they have the potential to kill far more people than floods," he warned.
He urged pharmaceutical companies and philanthropists to help deal with medicine shortages in order to save "thousands of precious lives."
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