WHO monitors dire health impact of Ukraine dam destruction

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The World Health Organization said Thursday it was rushing in supplies and upping surveillance after Ukraine’s dam disaster, amid an increased threat of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

Ukraine and Russia have accused each other over the breach of the dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, which sparked massive flooding and forced thousands to flee their homes, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster.

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The UN health agency warned Thursday that the broader impact on health could also be dramatic.

“The impact on the region’s water supply, sanitation systems and public health services cannot be underestimated,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

“WHO has rushed in to support the authorities and health care workers in preventive measures against waterborne diseases and to improve disease surveillance,” he said.

Teresa Zakaria, a WHO technical officer for emergencies response, said samples of the cholera bacteria have been found in the environment in Ukraine, although no human cases have yet been reported there since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February last year.

“At any given moment... we could start finding cases,” she told reporters, adding that WHO had been working with Ukraine’s health ministry “to make sure that mechanisms are in place to enable the importation of vaccines as soon as they are required.”

Cholera, which causes diarrhea and vomiting, is contracted from a bacterium that is generally transmitted through contaminated food or water.

It is particularly dangerous for young children and can kill within hours if left untreated.

Humanitarian crises and large-scale displacement, which often leave people in overcrowded settings with poor access to clean water and proper sanitation can dramatically increase the risk of cholera, if the bacteria are present.

In addition to the threat from waterborne diseases, Zakaria said WHO was trying to help address a wide range of other risks associated with the floods.

She pointed to trauma and drowning, but also the potential delays in accessing treatment for chronic conditions -- something she said WHO was watching “very closely.”

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