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Health concerns in Japanese tsunami shelters

TOKYO — Medical support is desperately needed at the shelters in the quake zone as the threat of influenza and other infectious diseases grows.

Conditions appear to be worsening in the Tohoku region due to the lack of sufficient food, water, medicine and heating supplies. This is especially true in the shelters along the Pacific coast — including in the Kanto region — which was ravaged by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami last Friday.

There also has been growing concern about the victims' health in the difficult living environment.

With the increasing danger of the flu and other infectious diseases that accompany cold weather — snow has been falling in many areas of Tohoku — it is more important than ever to provide the people in these shelters with the medical help they need.

Outside of Kasshi Primary School in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, where about 300 people have taken shelter, there are notices warning that people inside have contracted infectious diseases such as the flu or gastroenteritis. A list of evacuees is available, but people are forbidden from visiting the evacuees inside. One sign read, "Keep quiet: Sick children at rest."

The notices were posted after a fourth-grader was admitted to Prefectural Kamaishi Hospital on Tuesday with a high fever. He was diagnosed the next day with the flu.

Teachers isolated the boy and seven other children who had developed high fevers from the other evacuees. Teachers reportedly put together makeshift beds using gymnastics pads and folding legless chairs. They made attempts to keep the children warm by covering them with blankets and using a kerosene heater to heat the room all night.

After some bread and kiwifruit for breakfast, the children seem to be making a recovery.

"We're all exhausted. Our food doesn't have a good nutritional balance, and the evacuees are in no condition to resist infection. We need to contain the diseases as quickly as possible because they will only spread more once the symptoms worsen," said school nurse Michiko Takahashi, 52, who is looking after the health of the evacuees.

At Kamiyo Inahokan, the community center in Otsuchicho, Iwate Prefecture, eight people, including a gradeschooler, middle school student and senior citizen, have complained of diarrhea or nausea. These symptoms are believed to have been the result of drinking water from the Otsuchigawa River for three days after the water supply stopped. A 73-year-old resident of Otsuchicho said he drank the river water because he was grateful for whatever he could get.

The makeshift evacuation center has neither a doctor nor medicine; people who have fallen ill can do nothing but lay around. Aiko Kurosawa, an Otsuchicho welfare official, lamented the situation: "There's nothing we can do; we've got no medicine."

An emergency medical team has finally begun to move into the quake-stricken areas to cope with the worsening medical situation.

On Tuesday evening, the Japanese Red Cross dispatched from Hokkaido its first medical team, which has erected a tent at the gymnasium of a Kamaishi middle school. The team is examining evacuees. The first day, they checked 29 people; on Wednesday morning, they examined 50.

A 79-year-old woman who hurt her back while fleeing the tsunami had complained of nausea. She said she was relieved to finally see a doctor and get some blood pressure medicine. "I was able to finally get some sleep last night," she said.

Hiroshi Gyobu, one of the medical team members, said there is a considerable number of people who evacuated without the medicine they usually take. "It's particularly worrisome because so many of the evacuees are seniors with blood pressure issues."

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