Leprosy Mission supports disabled Burma cyclone victims

|PIC1|The Leprosy Mission is appealing for donations to support its work with disabled survivors of Cyclone Nargis two weeks after it hit Burma.

The cyclone has left huge humanitarian challenges in its wake. Around 134,000 are dead or missing, and as many as 2.4 million have been left destitute by the cyclone, but aid agencies warn that the death toll will almost certainly leap unless more food, water, shelter and medicines reaches survivors.

The Leprosy Mission said that in the aftermath of such a disaster, people with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable groups.

"As well as being traumatised, those with physical and sensory impairments are often unaware of the relief and rehabilitation services available and are unable to access them," the organisation said.

The Leprosy Mission has begun to distribute some aid among people with disabilities, but is appealing for more funds in order to expand the work and provide continuing assistance.

Drawing from its experience in leprosy and disability work, the charity said it aimed to rebuild the lives of over 1,500 people with disabilities, living in the delta and Rangoon regions, who have been severely affected by the cyclone.

Dr Griffiths, The Leprosy Mission's country coordinator for Burma, said that the process towards rehabilitation should start immediately in order "to reduce risk of disease outbreak".

The charity said that large numbers of vulnerable people were at risk after the cyclone caused substantial damage to existing facilities for disabled people, including residential and training centres for adults and children.

The Leprosy Mission's project will restore damaged facilities and repair or replace disability aids. Looking to the long-term rehabilitation of the cyclone-hit regions, the charity project includes work to repair or reinstall community livelihood equipment like grain mills and transport, and rebuild people's houses.

The Leprosy Mission will also operate a referral service for international and local NGOs operating in affected areas to support people with disabilities to access relief and development assistance.

Partner agencies of Christian humanitarian organisation Tearfund, meanwhile, are working day and night to get relief aid to thousands of the desperate survivors.

Stories of personal tragedy and suffering are continue to emerge from the survivors they are encountering in the Irrawaddy Delta more than two weeks on.

"The roof was flapping and then it opened up like a tin can," one woman told a relief team in the Insein Township. "Water was coming in and everything was floating. The nearby stream had risen four feet to reach the house... the water came up to my chest ...my neighbour's house collapsed and was completely destroyed. We have no water as our tank is full of dirty stream water."

An aid worker spoke of one family who narrowly missed being crushed as their house collapsed. "They had no place to run and they were afraid to go out from their house. The wind blew through their house with great force and dislocated everything."

Tearfund warned that the task ahead was "huge".

"The situation is desperate for so many people," says Sudarshan Sathianathan, Tearfund's Head of Asia Region. "The relief effort alone will take months and to rebuild lives and communities here seems a daunting development challenge. We have church volunteers that have themselves been hard hit and yet our partner staff have been able to mobilise them to help those worse affected. Teams are reaching the homeless with shelter materials and clothing. Food is feeding the hungry and our partner medical teams are treating many of the sick and injured. But much more aid is needed for a crisis like this - on a tsunami scale."

Tearfund is funding two of its partners in Burma's worst affected areas, where together they are helping some 55,000 people affected by the cyclone. The loss is huge, all having lost relatives, friends and in some cases, entire families, to the cyclone. Many homes and possessions were also swept away in the cyclone.

One Tearfund partner volunteer told of his visit to one village some four hours drive from Rangoon: "When we arrived we could see that most houses had been damaged and many had been laid flat. The destruction was evident... we could see that the wind had been overwhelming.

"We visited a church in that town that had been so badly damaged that only the frame was left standing. We met an elderly lady there who was very distressed. She said she had lost everything and there was only God for support now."

Tearfund partner teams have been able to reach some of the sick and injured in the worse affected areas with emergency items like food, water purification and medical aid. The scale of need is immense, it says, however.

"It is vital that we are able to continue to support our partners in Myanmar," continues Sudarshan. "Conditions are very difficult, people are desperate, but even in the midst of awful circumstances we are helping them. We are so grateful for the generous donations from supporters.

"It's this kindness confronting disaster and affliction that has enabled us to carry out the work, bringing relief now and in the longer term as communities will need our ongoing help to recover from this disaster."

Burma's military junta agreed on Monday to allow the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it is a member, to oversee the distribution of foreign aid within Burma.

Burma's Foreign Minister George Yeo said, however, that aid workers from countries beyond ASEAN would only be granted visas on a case-by-case basis.

The damage caused by Cyclone Nargis stands at an estimated $10 bn. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has proposed a "high-level pledging conference" to raise international funds for Burma. He is due to fly to Burma on Wednesday.

To make a donation to Leprosy Mission, go to www.leprosymission.org.uk