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.
As relief officials warned 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 ."
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."
"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.
"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, India. "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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.