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GENEVA (AP) -- The World Health Organization warned on Tuesday that disease in the aftermath of southern Asia's tsunami disaster could kill as many people as the deadly waves and earthquake have.
Governments in 11 nations are still trying to determine how many were killed in the devastation wreaked by Sunday's quake and the tsunamis it caused. The death toll now stands at around 44,000 and is expected to rise.
But with relief officials warning of possible cholera epidemics and malaria, Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for WHO, told reporters in Geneva that "there is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami."
Nabarro said the main threat to life now is communicable diseases associated with a lack of clean water and sanitation.
"The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities," Nabarro warned.
Local hospitals and health services are already overwhelmed by the initial impact of the earthquake, and so are less able to cope with people who may fall ill, Nabarro said.
"So our focus, with the governments and with civil society organizations throughout the region, will be on saving lives, preventing disease and promoting recovery of the essential infrastructure for public health and well-being," he explained. "The assessments are underway."
Relief organizations are distributing supplies over 11 countries in Asia and Africa, and the United Nations has said it will likely make its largest ever appeal for humanitarian funding in response to the disaster.
The hardest-hit countries are Indonesia, whose Aceh region was closest to the epicenter of Sunday's earthquake, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India.
"Some areas are still hard to get to, but we're now moving into Aceh and finding early signs of a really terrible humanitarian tragedy in that part of Indonesia, and we're much more aware now of the needs in Sri Lanka, and Maldives and in the other countries," Nabarro said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)