The International Red Cross feared malaria and cholera may add to the toll from the earthquake and tidal waves, as aid agencies mounted what U.N. officials said would be the world's biggest relief effort.
"We don't have enough people to bury the dead. We are worried that all the corpses on the streets will lead to disease," said Red Cross official Irman Rachmat, in Banda Aceh on Sumatra.
India's southeastern coast is a picture of shock and wordless grief. It is also a spectacle of filth and looming disease.
"There is a very high risk of epidemics breaking out in all these places," said Dr. Sathish Amarnath, a microbiologist who heads the infection control department at Manipal Hospital in Bangalore. "Decaying bodies are bacteria factories. The bodies must be quickly disposed of."
He said corpses could contaminate ground water, spreading diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis-A and dysentery. He urged people to sprinkle bleaching powder on corpses as well as in water.
"There is much more we should do. Vaccination for survivors will be very important, once bodies have been dealt with," he added.
Authorities contended they were doing what they could and that it was impossible to teach hygiene to grieving survivors.
"I cannot ask a man who has lost his family and home to boil his water before drinking," said the resident medical officer of the government hospital in Nagappattinam, refusing to be named.
Sri Lanka's Health Ministry said it was dispatching 500 physicians by helicopter to the affected area to treat the wounded and to ensure medical care in case of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea.
"We are asking for more to come on voluntary basis," said Anuruddha Padeniya, secretary of a medical association.
Four aircraft — including an airborne surgical hospital from Finland — were to arrive in Colombo with aid and medical supplies, said Bandula Jayasekara, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross.
A German aircraft is bringing in a water purification plant. Britain is sending a logistical support team, and Japanese health officials and medicine are on the way. India has sent two ships carrying thousands relief packages consisting of blankets, saris, water buckets, and pots and pans.
Meanwhile, police said they were waiving a law requiring autopsies of the victims to speed up the burial of decomposing bodies.
"We accept that the deaths were caused by drowning," police spokesman, Rienzie Perera said.
"We would hope to have by Friday nearly half the people who have been affected with emergency health gear and that's things like medicine, oral rehydration for children who might have diarrhea, we'll have water purifying stuff, some small bottles of water and medicine for things like malaria, UNICEF's John Budd in Jakarta told CBS News' Up To The Minute
Humanitarian aid organization AmeriCares' relief effort will include water purification treatments to provide four million liters of clean drinking water.
"What we're going to see is a massive public health and epidemiological disaster unfolding over the coming weeks and months," said Christoph Gorder, vice president of international programs for AmeriCares.
AmeriCares' initial response includes a major airlift to Sri Lanka and additional relief shipments to other affected countries such as Indonesia, India and Thailand, where more than a million people have been displaced from their homes.
Malaria is an infectious disease transmitted by the bites of mosquitoes infected with the malaria-causing parasite, says WebMD. After being bitten by an infected mosquito, the parasite infects human liver and red blood cells. Most malaria infections cause flu-like symptoms (such as high fever, chills, muscle pain, diarrhea) that come and go in cycles as the disease progresses.
Cholera is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which lives and multiples (colonizes) in the small intestine but does not destroy or invade the intestinal tissue (noninvasive). The major symptom of cholera is massive watery diarrhea.