- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NEW YORK — U.N. humanitarian officials yesterday warned they might already be too late to prevent a “second wave” of deaths in cyclone-ravaged Burma from malaria, diarrhea and other diseases that will ravage a population weakened by exposure and hunger.

Burma’s military government has begun to issue a small number of visas to foreign relief workers, but U.N. officials say they need much more to immediately deploy logistical and aid specialists as well as emergency supplies to fend off a looming crisis.

“We are at a critical point,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we will face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s crisis.”

He said he called on Burma’s leaders to “put people’s lives first.”

The U.S. military commander of the Pacific, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, met yesterday with military leaders in Burma for the first time, examining maps of the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta as the first flight of American disaster-aid arrived.

Adm. Keating and other U.S. military personnel “met some Burmese officials, including the deputy foreign minister” at Rangoon’s international airport, “and they gathered together and looked at maps,” a U.S. official said, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

They discussed geographical features, logistics and the suffering of survivors on the stricken Irrawaddy River Delta, where more than 30,000 people were killed and about 40,000 were missing in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

The May 3 cyclone brought murderous rain, wind and tidal swells ashore from the Bay of Bengal onto the densely populated river delta southwest of Rangoon.

American troops unpacked 14 tons of supplies, described as including mosquito nets, blankets and water, from a C-130 U.S. military cargo plane in an operation dubbed “Joint Task Force Caring Response.” Burmese hauled the aid away in army trucks. No U.S. or other foreign officials were allowed to supervise its distribution.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) planned to fly two more C-130s loaded with emergency aid into Rangoon tomorrow.

Adm. Keating accompanied the relief supplies to personally negotiate with the ruling junta for a larger U.S. role in providing relief, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said there are 11,000 service members and four ships in the region for an annual military exercise, Cobra Gold, that could be harnessed to help the mercy mission.

Three U.S. Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal were sailing closer to Burma yesterday, ready to aid cyclone victims if they are given permission, Vice Adm. Doug Crowder told reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.

“The aftermath [of the cyclone] is setting the stage to be just as deadly as the cyclone itself,” Pamela Sitko, World Vision International’s emergency communications officer for Asia and the Pacific, said yesterday.

“The death toll … could soon be approaching up to 100,000,” she said.

Dr. Peter Salama, chief of health for UNICEF, said, “We are already late.”

“We know that where the humanitarian response happens in days to a week, you can prevent the majority of excess deaths … but the delayed response for security or political reasons will lead to a high rate of death.”

Burma’s military regime, which has ruled the Texas-sized nation since a 1962 army coup, renaming it Myanmar, continues to reject most requests by foreign aid workers for entry visas, but it has issued 34 visas to U.N. personnel, in addition to some visas distributed to nongovernmental aid groups.

Frustrated foreign public-health officials say the government’s response has been inadequate 11 days after the cyclone killed more than 30,000 people and afflicted another 1.5 million.

Measles, diarrhea, pneumonia and other highly contagious diseases will soon race through the devastated area. Malaria already is the leading cause of death for Burmese children under 5, and health officials predict it will brew with a new vengeance as the displaced huddle on the high ground surrounded by pools of mosquito-infested waters.

Richard S. Ehrlich reported from Bangkok.

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