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Doctors warn of health threat from Chile wreckage

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

CONCEPCION, Chile (AP): Huge piles of wreckage and tons of rotting fish and other debris blanketing the ground are turning the coastal towns shattered by Chile's earthquake and tsunami into nests of infection, doctors warned.

As calls for medicine and shelter grew, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon flew into the heavily damaged city of Concepción,n aboard a Chilean air force plane Saturday, following at least six moderate aftershocks. He was driven immediately to the city's ground zero, where a building had collapsed and a couple called out one last time to a missing son believed killed in the wreckage.

As Chileans lined up for hepatitis and tetanus shots Friday on the opening day of an extensive vaccination campaign, doctors said cases of diarrhoea are increasing from people drinking unclean water and a growing number of patients are suffering injuries wading through the mess.

"We are going to keep needing water, electric systems, a functioning sewerage system. We need to clean up rotting fish in the streets. We need chemical toilets, and when it starts raining, people living in tents are going to get wet and sick. All this is going to cause infections," said Talcahuano Mayor Gaston Saavedra, whose port city was heavily damaged by the February 27 quake and tsunami.

The government faces other health-care problems. Looting of pharmacies has made medicine scarce for people suffering from diabetes, hypertension and psychological illnesses, and 36 hospitals were heavily damaged or destroyed in the quake.

Hospitals open

Chile said more than a dozen of its own military and civilian field hospitals were operating on Friday. Mobile hospitals from a half-dozen other countries also were opening or about to open - an unusual situation for a country that proudly sends rescue-and-relief teams to the world's trouble spots.

But most of the foreign units weren't treating anyone a week after the disaster. Chile insisted donor nations first figure out how to coordinate with Chile's advanced, if wounded, public-health system.

A Peruvian field hospital opened in Concepción last Thursday with three operating rooms and 28 beds. But surgeons and trauma specialists stood with their arms crossed on Friday, waiting for patients to be sent by local health officials.

Luis Ojeda, a Spanish doctor working with Doctors Without Borders, said his team arrived last Monday but was still waiting for Chile's instructions on where to deploy.

"This country is atypical," Ojeda said, adding he'd spent his time checking on the displaced in tent camps.