MANILA, Philippines, October 27, 2009 (ENS) – The World Health Organization has sent an international team of health experts to the Philippines to help the government respond to a large-scale outbreak of the disease leptospirosis, which has followed the torrential rains and flooding across the main island Luzon, including Metro Manila.

The four-person team is made up of experts in leptospirosis control, epidemiology, and clinical management of the disease, which is usually caused by contact with water contaminated with the urine of rats or other animals.

The team’s members are drawn from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, GOARN, a pool of experts on permanent stand-by to respond to health emergencies. The specialists – from institutes in Australia, France, the Netherlands and Singapore – began arriving in Manila on Monday.

Today, the team was briefed by officials from the Philippines Department of Health and World Health Organization counterparts before heading out to the field.

“The GOARN team has come at the invitation of the government of the Philippines,” said the WHO Representative in the Philippines, Dr. Soe Nyunt-U. “They will be assisting the government by providing technical assessment and assistance in the surveillance, epidemiological and clinical care of those who fall sick from the disease.”

Many communities are still under water after Typhoon Ondoy, with the international name Ketsana, struck the Philippines on September 26, dumping a month’s worth of rain on Manila in just six hours. As river banks overflowed, water levels rose to nearly 25 meters (80 feet) in some places, submerging or sweeping away tens of thousands of homes and drowning hundreds of people.

On the heels of Ondoy, Typhoon Pepeng struck the north of the country, exited out to sea and then returned, killing many more people and leaving more towns under water or mud.

At least seven million people were affected by the two storms. Some areas are expected to be under water for months as clogged waterways are preventing the floodwaters from draining out to sea.

Leptospirosis bacteria commonly enter the body through skin cuts and abrasions when a person comes into contact with contaminated water or soil.

Common initial symptoms of leptospirosis include fever, severe headache, sore muscles, chills, vomiting and red eyes. Some victims develop severe illness, including meningitis, and Weil’s disease, which results in kidney failure and possibly death.

Thousands of families remain homeless, crammed together in temporary accommodation and vulnerable to other infectious disease outbreaks such as gastroenteritis or respiratory illnesses. Access to good sanitation and safe water is a major problem.

Many hospitals and clinics are damaged or under water, with some staff unable to get to work, as they are marooned in evacuation centres or still repairing their homes. At the same time, victims of the floods are causing a surge in demand on the health facilities.

“The Philippine government has responded commendably to this disaster,” said Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, based in Manila. “But this is clearly a very difficult situation.”

Meanwhile, Philippine officials are preparing for yet another storm expected to near the Philippines this coming weekend. Weather forcasters say Tropical Storm Mirinae is now over the Marianas Islands about 2,120 km east of southern Luzon Island with maximum sustained winds of 65 kph and gusts of up to 80 kph. It is forecast to move west northwest at 28 kph.

President Gloria Arroyo has ordered relief caravans and boats pre-positioned in vulnerable and low-lying areas beginning Wednesday, so that the government is able to move people to safer ground at a moment’s notice.

At a Cabinet and National Disaster Coordinating Council meeting today, the President directed all relief efforts to be handled through the newly formed National Private-Public Reconstruction Commission.

She told Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, co-chairman of the Reconstruction Commission, first to seek aid from Australia, Canada and the United States and the United Nations before asking for loans from the World Bank and foreign lending institutions.

President Arroyo thanked the United States on Monday for its US$8.5 million food aid to the Philippines, particularly for the victims of the two typhoons.

In a meeting with Arroyo at the Malacanang Palace Monday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the assistance will be provided under the USDA’s Food for Progress Program.

“The United States understands the importance of international assistance in the aftermath of disasters like the typhoons that recently hit the Philippines,” Vilsack said. “The food aid I am announcing today will help the people in most need of assistance.”

Of the P23.5 billion pesos (US$496 million) damage to agriculture wrought by Ondoy and Pepeng, the National Food Authority’s buffer stock of rice has dropped to 60 days from a 90 day reserve.

Vilsack said U.S. commodity donations of rice and non-fat dry milk will provide food to an estimated 438,000 calamity victims in the country for about 60 days.

The commodities will be processed into ultra high temperature milk and biscuits before distribution to the flood victims.

Looking to long-term protection of the vulnerable island nation, President Arroyo Friday signed into the Philippine Climate Change Act of 2009.

The new law calls for the establishment of a program to deal with the effects of typhoons and other weather disturbances, which have been increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of changes in the climatic patterns.

The establishment of a National Framework Strategy and Program on Climate Change will focus on mitigation and adaptation – the two instruments to battle climate change – from the highest levels of government down to the more than 42,000 barangays, or villages.

Under the law, an autonomous policy-making body, known as Climate Change Commission, to be headed by the Chief Executive, will set up, coordinate, monitor, and evaluate action plans for preparing the country against typhoons with their strong winds, heavy rainfall, floods and landslides.

The law calls for the creation of a roadmap to reduce risk of disasters on one hand and keep local carbon emissions within manageable levels on the other.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.