NEW DELHI, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- With the death toll soaring at least 85,000 in the tsunami havoc, the World Health Organization Wednesday warned that disease in the aftermath of the disaster could kill as many people as the deadly waves caused by an undersea earthquake.
The toll shot up after the rescue workers found the remains of entire villages in Indonesia, the worst hit nation that accounted for more than 40,000 deaths in Sunday's watery fury.
According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies hundred of thousands were injured and more than 1 million were left homeless.
Sri Lanka has reported 28,000 dead and predicted that number will increase by 2,000, while India accounted for 12,500 deaths, and Thailand reported 1,500 dead. Thousands of people are reported missing, including hundreds of Western tourists who had thronged to luxury tourist resorts in Thailand and Sri Lanka to celebrate New Year holidays.
Millions were rendered homeless by the tsunamis that lashed the coastal regions of 11 nations, causing severe damage in at least seven countries following a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Sumatra in Indonesia.
The international Red Cross said that it believes the death toll could rise to more than 100,000, with one official calling it "a disaster of unprecedented proportion."
UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said that children could account for up to a third of the dead.
An Indonesia official said that three-fourths of the western coastline of Sumatra was washed away. Most of the deaths in Indonesia were in the northwestern province of Aceh at the tip of Sumatra. Rescue crews and international volunteers were still trying to reach cut-off areas even as separatist rebels announced a truce to allow people to search for missing people.
The unbearable stench of decomposing corpses spread over the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, where fresh water, food and fuel were in short supply. Hundreds of bodies lay scattered in the streets.
Aid workers and volunteers from across the world have joined the locals in Indonesia and Sri Lanka to retrieve the rotting corpses from canals, building ruins and waterlogged fields.
Authorities in the tsunami-stricken South Asian nations lack medicines and relief supplies to cope up with the worst natural calamity in 40 years.
The wild waves, as high as 10-meters, smashed into the coastal districts of several countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Tsunami, which means a harbor wave in Japanese, can travel up to 500 miles an hour.
Despite the mass cremation and burial of thousands of bodies, corpses still float in canals, lay strewn on the beaches or even hang in the trees across the devastated south Asian nations as the rescue workers and relief volunteers reach the remote locations.
With thousands of bodies rotting and infrastructures in tatters, authorities and medical relief workers fear an epidemic. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the World Health Organization, said the main threat to life now is communicable diseases associated with a lack of clean water and sanitation.
"There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami," Nabarro told a news conference in Geneva.
Nabarro said local hospitals and health services in affected regions were already overwhelmed by the initial impact.
The Times of India reported that the largest relief operation in human history is woefully short of medicines, food and other relief supplies as thousands crowd into temporary shelters.
The situation is feared to be even worse in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where rescue teams headed Wednesday and found some of the survivors. India's toll of nearly 12,500 included at least 7,000 on the islands closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland.
On one island, the surge of water killed two-thirds of the population.
"One in every five inhabitants in the entire Nicobar group of islands is either dead, injured or missing," a police official told The Times of India.
The risk of communicable diseases or an epidemic of cholera or other waterborne diseases looms large in the affected regions. Rescuers have been told to hold their breath while using their bare hands, axes or shovels to dig through piles of wrecked buildings and debris to retrieve bodies.
"People should be buried, and the animals should be destroyed and disposed off before they infect the drinking water. It's a massive operation," U.N. disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland said.
"Drinking water for millions has been polluted. ... It can cause diseases. ... Also, acute respiratory disease always comes in the wake of disasters," Egeland said.
Many of the bodies were already decomposing in the heat, underlining the growing health risk.
Officials in India have begun extensive distribution of water-purifying chlorine tablets and oral dehydration solution to prevent deaths. Also safety masks are being distributed to people in the affected areas.
A WHO spokesperson in New Delhi said the possibility of waterborne diseases is quite high in the region. "We have to look out for ways of providing safe drinking water to the displaced and provide them proper sanitation," she said.
The worst affected was Sri Lanka, where more than 28,000 people are confirmed dead and thousands still missing. At least 800 people were killed when a train was flung off the rail track by the killer waves. The country has requested that WHO supply "emergency health kits" that can cater to 10,000 people for three months.
"The biggest health challenges we are facing are the spread of waterborne diseases, particularly malaria and diarrhea, as well as respiratory tract infections," Hakan Sandbladh, spokesman for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
The situation is similar in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, where relief agencies are distributing preventive medicines to counter an epidemic.
International relief agencies are supplying clean drinking water in the affected regions and also setting up mobile latrines for the survivors.
Hundreds of planeloads of medicines and relief material are on the way to tsunami-stricken South Asian nations. The armies, air force and naval units of affected countries are working to provide succor to the survivors of worst quake in 40 years.
Indonesia and Sri Lanka together accounted for nearly 65,000 deaths, and news reports pouring in from the affected regions suggest that the death toll is expected to rise by the tens of thousands.
Hundreds of bodies have been recovered from the sea, pushing the death toll to a staggering 85,000.
While authorities ran out of body bags in Indonesia's Aceh region, there was not enough wood to cremate thousands of victims in southern India.
The estimated death toll in Thailand doubled after 700 bodies were found in the wreckage of hotels on one stretch of beach on the mainland north of Phuket Island.
Khao Lak beach, in Phang Nga Province, is now thought to be the site of the most casualties. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the final toll in his nation would cross the 2,000 mark.
More than 20 countries have pledged emergency aid worth more than $80 million, and several Asian nations have sent naval ships carrying supplies and doctors to devastated areas.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, rejecting comments from a top U.N. official that rich countries were being "stingy," said the international community would need to give billions of dollars in aid. Washington doubled its pledge to $35 million. Australia increased its aid to $27 million.
"A lot of the economies, or sectors of the economies, of the affected countries have been close to destroyed, and it is going to require a great deal of rebuilding and a great deal investment," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
More than 5 million people have been rendered homeless across South Asia by the killer waves. Many of the displaced people were staying in shrines, schools or temporary relief camps. International aid agencies are building temporary shelters for the homeless, providing them with drinking water and setting up latrines.
Not many people in the affected countries had heard about tsunamis until the ocean unleashed havoc on Sunday.
Indian officials say they failed to recognize or sound an alert in the two hours it took the killer waves to hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
"In the absence of instrumentation, we could not have known that the earthquake in Sumatra would lead to tsunami on our coasts," India's Minister of State for Science and Technology and Ocean Development Kapil Sibal told reporters.
"It is not a phenomenon that has occurred in this part of the world," he said. "If we had had any inkling, we could have reacted faster."
"Once we came to know of the magnitude of the earthquake near Sumatra, we should have reacted," V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary in the Department of Science and Technology said.
"We lost 2½ hours. That was the first mistake we made as the earthquake was on the wrong side of Sumatra to impact the Pacific Rim countries," he said.
Sibal said around 80 percent of tsunamis occur in Pacific Rim countries, and the data provided by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center would not have had much relevance for India.
Sibal announced India would install its own tsunami warning system.
In India, saris killed several women bathing in the sea when the gigantic tsunami waves hit the southeast coast. The women, caught in the surging waters, could not escape after their saris got entangled in seaweed and bushes washed in by the sea. Even those who ran for safety were trapped after bushes and debris caught hold of their saris, the Deccan Chronicle reported.
"I tried hard to pull out a woman from the waves, but her legs got entangled in her sari," one of the witnesses recalled. "Despite trying many times, I could not free her legs. Then my hands also got entangled in the sari. Somehow I managed to free myself, and she was washed away."
The last major quake in the region was in 2001, killing 25,000 people in western state of Gujarat, India.