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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Race to beat disease for wave survivors

Survivor Fidelis Kempa: His six grandchildren all died

Michael Peschardt: unlikely that those lost and injured will survive heat
Hundreds of victims of the tidal wave disaster in Papua New Guinea are being burned to prevent the spread of potentially lethal diseases.

Some 1,600 people have now been confirmed dead in West Sepik province and the army is incinerating corpses in mass graves in an attempt to keep infection at bay.

The lack of proper burial and the inability to carry out proper funeral rites is an extra source of distress for relatives.

The BBC's Michael Peschardt: situation is bleak
"It's a very traumatic event for the people here who have strong spiritual beliefs, but really the fear is now that malaria, cholera and all sorts of diseases will flourish in very humid and hot conditions," the BBC correspondent in Papua New Guinea says.

Searches are under way to find remaining survivors before sickness can take hold.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Bill Skate, has expressed fears that the number of people killed could be higher than the worst estimates made so far.

[ image: A young survivor is taken to a rescue plane]
A young survivor is taken to a rescue plane
He said 6,000 were still unaccounted for and he was not optimistic about their fate.

His views echoed those of relief workers who said there were many corpses in the mangrove swamps behind the seven villages swept away by the giant tsunami waves which hit the north-west coast last week.

Relief agencies also believe many bodies were swept out to sea when the giant waves turned, and that the final death toll may therefore never be known.

Some burials

Australian soldiers are helping locals bury as many of the dead as possible, sometimes having to simply cover them where they lie, with little attempt at formal identification.

Our correspondent says those who are left alive say they are too frightened to return to the site of their old homes because the lagoons, which were once central to their lives, are now filled with the dead.

[ image: Australian army doctors treat survivors]
Australian army doctors treat survivors
Many of the survivors have horrific injuries. Local officials say they fear almost an entire generation of children has been wiped out.

In draining heat and humidity the injured are being treated in makeshift hospitals.

Rescue workers say that the chances of the injured remaining alive in the cloying heat are now becoming increasingly remote.

They say there is a severe lack of clean water and food.

Relief efforts

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke analyses the relief operation
The remoteness of the area is hampering relief efforts, which are being led by Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian air force has flown in three planeloads of supplies to a tiny church airfield inland from the devastated coastline.

[ image: Masked rescuers work to pull bodies from the water]
Masked rescuers work to pull bodies from the water
A field hospital has been set up close to the disaster zone.

The United Nations, the Commonwealth and Pope John Paul have urged the world to help the survivors.

National disaster

Patrick Fuller, of International Red Cross
The tsunami was triggered by two earthquakes. It struck west of Aitape village in West Sepik province, hitting villages about 370 miles (595km) northwest of the capital Port Moresby on Friday.

Michael Peschardt: inhabitants washed away
The BBC correspondent says Papua New Guinea is going to need massive international help to rebuild the lives of the people in the area.

The economy is in poor shape, still recovering from a year-long drought in which thousands of people starved to death.

Tsunami are commonly known as a tidal waves but actually have nothing to do with tides - they are started by a seismic shock and run from the ocean floor to the surface.

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