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Volcano-displaced face increased health risks

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
An elderly woman wears a face mask near a government evacuation centre
JAKARTA, 27 October 2010 (IRIN) - Indonesian health authorities are warning of increased health risks for thousands of people displaced by the volcano eruption in central Java.

The Mount Merapi volcano erupted before dusk on 26 October, spewing clouds of extremely hot ash and covering entire neighbourhoods on its southern slope.

At least 28 people are now confirmed dead and 90 hospitalized for burns, the Health Ministry said in a statement on 27 October.

Local media reported that a three-month-old baby died after experiencing respiratory problems, while at least 26 people are now being treated in hospitals with respiratory problems caused by volcanic dust, Nelis Zuliasri, a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Agency, said.

According to the World Health Organization, hot ash, gases, rock and magma cause skin and lung burns, asphyxiation, conjunctivitis or corneal abrasion, as well as acute respiratory problems.

In the case of ashfall, particularly with fine particles, bronchial asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions can be aggravated in children as well as in adults, the UN agency says.

Evacuation

As of 27 October, more than 22,000 villagers are staying in 10 government-run shelters in three districts - Magelang, Klaten and Boyolali - outside the 10km danger zone.

"Displaced people are prone to health problems such as upper respiratory infection, coughs and diarrhoea," Bondan Agus Suryanto, a doctor working with the Indonesian Red Cross in the disaster zone, told IRIN. So far, however, they had yet to see widespread cases in 10 of 60 barracks in four districts - Magelang, Klaten and Boyolali and Sleman - housing the displaced.

He said infants especially needed food to supplement breast milk.

The Health Ministry said it had distributed 50,000 face masks, 4MT of medicines, 6MT of baby food and 200 million rupiah (US$22,000) in cash.

"Our efforts focus on evacuating victims, providing health services and preparing shelters for the displaced," the ministry said.

Evacuation order

The head of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation, Surono, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, said he had ordered a mass evacuation when the volcano showed increased activity early on 26 October, prior to the eruption.

"But villagers refused to be moved. I'm sad that people have to die," he said.

Taslim, a 45-year-old farmer who fled his home in Kinahrejo village when the volcano erupted, said he initially did not want to leave because he was afraid his livestock and crops would be stolen.

"I was feeding my livestock when I heard a siren. Soon I heard a thunderous sound and saw ash raining down," he said. "We ran as fast as we could but some people did not make it," he said.

Accessing tsunami victims

Meanwhile, rescue workers began arriving on 27 October on Mentawai islands, where a tsunami triggered by a 7.5-magnitude earthquake the previous day killed 112 people and left at least 109 others missing, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

The tsunami displaced 250 families, destroyed 179 homes and damaged 300 more, the agency said in a statement on its website.

Sixteen tons of aid were airlifted on 27 October, comprising 500 tents, 50 family tents, 500 mats, 80 blankets and 650 boxes of food, it said.

Vice-President Boediono visited the Mentawais the same day to oversee the rescue effort.

atp/ds/mw

Theme(s): Health & Nutrition, Natural Disasters, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]