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Young Pakistan Flood Victims Face Health Concerns

September 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Special correspondent Saima Mohsin reports in Pakistan on the potential health and safety concerns for the youngest victims of the country's flooding crisis.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a two-part take on the Pakistan flood story. First, special correspondent Saima Mohsin reports on the plight of the youngest victims.

SAIMA MOHSIN: These are the faces behind the statistics. More than eight million children have been seriously affected by the flooding, each one too young to have such a miserable story to tell. Their health and safety is the immediate concern, the basics that we take for granted, food and clean drinking water.

WOMAN (through translator): Our kids are sleeping out in the open. We haven’t received any help. We don’t have any money. We don’t have any food. We haven’t been given anything to feed our children. They are going hungry. We have just been left to live out in the open.

SAIMA MOHSIN: These children spend all day in the scorching heat. and, at night, it’s freezing cold. They don’t have tents to spare them from the elements. Malnutrition rates in the flood-affected zones were already high. Now children with little access to food and clean drinking water are more vulnerable than ever.

ANDRO SHILAKADZE UNICEF: The major concerns that children are facing right now because of the devastation is displacement. It’s the conditions that they live in, the severe malnutrition they are facing. This is basic medical care that they need, especially drinking water, clean drinking water, hygiene and sanitation. Those are the priority issues right now that we are concerned with, because though — unless we prevent, unless we put the measures in place, we might face consequences.

SAIMA MOHSIN: They wash in the water where their livestock has drowned, where rain and floodwater is mixed with sewage.

This baby’s bath was black and murky before he got into it. In a bizarre twist, the dirty water is their only option to stay clean.

Already weak, children are at risk of waterborne diseases now. The U.N. estimates 20 percent of children are suffering from diarrhea-related diseases. And outbreaks of cholera are breaking out up and down the country.

In fact, UNICEF says 3.5 million children are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases. The Pakistani media has reported deaths of children either because of diseases or because they didn’t have access to food for days on end. But with devastation spanning across one-fifth of the country, there are no firm statistics to say how many children may have died. But there’s another menace to contend with. Beyond protecting children from disease and malnutrition, their safety and security is now emerging as yet another battle they face.

As the mass evacuations in cities, towns and villages across the country took place, and as flash floods rushed through homes, confusion took over as people made their escape. Reports of families being separated are now emerging from camps and roadsides where people have finally settled.

WOMAN (through translator): We were about to leave on a bus. We put some of the kids in it. When the flash floods came we ran, but we had nowhere else to go. There was so much water. We ended up leaving some children behind. Nobody is helping us. We have asked everyone. Our children are stuck there.

SAIMA MOHSIN: But missing children are simply not the top priority right now. Bella’s (ph) sister has left to try and trace them. But they know it’s a near impossible task.

WOMAN (through translator): All my time is spent worrying about my children that aren’t here with me. If we were together, we would be happy. Half a heartbeat is here and half a heartbeat is there with them.

SAIMA MOHSIN: Those that made it to the camps are no safer. There’s no security cordon here, no monitoring of who goes in and out. Unaccompanied and vulnerable, charities are worried young people may be exploited or abused.

ANDRO SHILAKADZE: We’re very concerned about identifying those cases of separation. So, this would be another concern for us very much, to ensure that children are protected from any abuse, violence, and as well as abduction, because of this insecure situation. Also, the false relief, assistance may lead them towards any different, you know, the consequences, for example, an abduction and trafficking. So, many people that have that in mind may take advantage of this situation, and, in exchange of any relief goods or any help, they might end up trafficking children.

SAIMA MOHSIN: So many millions are affected, that it’s hard to say how many children may be lost. With prior warning about the impending disaster, there is criticism that children’s charities and organizations weren’t prepared for these challenges ahead of the floodwater’s arrival.

Organizations like UNICEF have only just started to collect the data and raise concerns. UNICEF says it couldn’t have foreseen how widespread the devastation would be, but it’s doing its best to deal with the aftermath.

ANDRO SHILAKADZE: Well, we’re working with a social welfare department and different authorities, as well as NGOs. First of all, we are establishing the help lines in all locations basically, in all districts. The people can use those help lines and report on any cases of abuse, violence or abduction or trafficking, as well as we’re conducting a huge social mobilization campaign educating and providing information to people living in camps about potential risks that can happen to their children.

And, lastly, we’re working with NADRA, the official registration authority, to help us to register any cases of separation or any cases of abuse, violence, or intention of trafficking.

SAIMA MOHSIN: Many of these children have already been displaced through a military operation against the Taliban. They are minds mocked by years of brutality, fighting and fear. Children’s psychological and social welfare is also a huge concern. Dealing with the health, mental and physical is a priority. Relocating and reuniting families is now an active part of the aid activities. But the work has only just begun. The floodwater, an unwelcome guest in their homes and lives, has impacted the future of an entire generation.