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Storm may be over, but trouble still brews

An outbreak of a water-borne disease in the Philippines highlights the inability of communities to cope with the storm's aftermath.

A woman is seen through a soccer goal post as she hangs clothes out to dry inside a stadium to which evacuees affected by floods from Typhoon Ketsana have been temporarily relocated, Oct. 24, 2009. They have been provided tents by the local government in Marikina City, east of Metro Manila. (John Javellana/Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines — Nearly a month since a tropical storm dumped unprecedented amounts of rain that flooded much of Metro Manila and its nearby provinces, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos are still suffering from its aftermath, particularly from an outbreak of a water-borne disease called leptospirosis that has killed so far 167 people and infected thousands.

Apart from leptospirosis and other diseases, tens of thousands of residents in the capital and elsewhere in Luzon, the main island north of the country, remain homeless after two storms in short succession, Ketsana then Parma, destroyed houses, properties and crops.

The Philippines isn't new to devastation wrought by storms and typhoons, but these recent ones have been particularly crippling, especially in poorer areas. Several districts of Metro Manila remain flooded in waist-deep water, raising concerns that the leptospirosis outbreak could worsen.

Health officials have said that the outbreak of the disease is one of the largest in the world. Leptospirosis is a constant threat in flooded areas and has been made significantly worse by continual floods in the wake of Ketsana and Parma.

“This is unprecedented,” health secretary Francisco Duque III said last week. “There’s been no situation like what we have in the Philippines where within less than a month’s time we have doubled or tripled the average number of cases in a year’s time,” Duque said.

“We have also already sent an SOS to the international community because this is one of the biggest outbreaks, not just in the Philippines but in the world,” he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that as many 4,000 could be infected by leptospirosis, which is a bacterial infection caused by the urine of rats and vermins, among other mammals, in flooded areas. The disease, if untreated, can damage the kidney, among other effects. Symptoms include high fever, severe headache, muscle pain, chills, redness in the eyes, abdominal pain, jaundice, hemorrhages in skin and mucous membranes, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes.

The government estimates that as many as 1.7 million people are at “high risk” of exposure to the disease and that more than 1.2 million residents still live in inundated villages, most of them in the capital. In Pasig City, whole communities remain flooded and residents have turned their neighborhoods into canals, with gondola-like contraptions now serving as a means of transportation for many of them.

The additional problem created by the outbreak has put further strain on the already dwindling resources of the government, which has appealed to the international community for help after the typhoons destroyed millions of dollars in crops and property.

Government hospitals have not been able to cope with the rise in leptospirosis cases and, this week, the government convinced private hospitals to take in patients. The health department said it would subsidize the cost of the treatments, which can range from $100 to as much as $400, depending on the complication. For poor families who are invariably the ones most affected by the outbreak, this expense — $400 is equivalent to two months salary of a minimum wage earner — can be forbidding.

Alarmed, the World Health Organization announced last Thursday that it was sending in a team to help the Philippine government cope with the outbreak.