Myanmar May Face Disease, Malnutrition

Lasting Impact for Children

The group most likely to inherit the lasting health impacts from the disaster are the country's youngest survivors.

"Re-establishing health care -- in the U.S. it takes less than a year or six months, but in a place like [Myanmar] it might be a decade," Ramirez says. "If you go a decade with minimal to no health care, the impact on child mortality and longevity is devastating."

Lack of access to adequate food may also have long-lasting impacts for these young victims. "If they don't get food, the biggest problem will be malnutrition," says Dr. Karen Olness, professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Malnutrition in the first two years of life leads to learning disabilities."

But Olness adds that by far the most serious issue facing the children of the disaster will be long-term mental illness.

"The long-term problems for the children will be post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems as a result of the experience -- the frightening experience of losing family members, of losing familiar environments," she says. "It's hard to judge what percentage of children will be adversely affected, but in general, after a major natural disaster, about one-third of children will suffer from mental health problems."

Olness says the key to warding off these adverse effects on mental health is to re-establish family and community connections and resume school sessions and other aspects of day-to-day life.

Saving the Survivors

For everyone, however, the most pressing need is to provide relief as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"There were many good lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami," Imperato says. "The most important was aggressive public health intervention to provide safe water supplies, safe food supplies, safe shelters and protection for children and adults against viral infections."

Such intervention may be easier said than done, Olness says.

"During situations like the 2004 tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, the countries allowed the U.N. agencies to come in very quickly to set up tent hospitals, which are very effective these days," she says. "The trouble with Myanmar is the reluctance to bring in the acute needs that are now relatively easy to do."

This may result in epidemics, she says. "There were no epidemics after the tsunami and earthquake because of the humanitarian programs, which were so effective."

But Blaser says that the capability to offer crucial aid exists -- and this aid has the potential to save hundreds, even thousands, of lives.

"I think the good news in all of this is that we live in a world of rapid communications and travel," Blaser says. "We should try to utilize people in a hurry and get help there as soon as possible, because there are some people who are right on the margin, and they can be saved if they are helped soon enough."

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