Open-Air Maternity Ward Delivers Babies Amid Solomon Islands Tsunami Debris

Saturday, April 7th 2007, 2:16 pm
By: News On 6

GIZO, Solomon Islands (AP) _ As flies buzzed around a basket of bloody gauze, Moana Saito nursed her newborn daughter, delivered Saturday in an open air maternity ward near the epicenter of the Solomon Islands' earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Swaddled in tie-dyed muslin, the baby rested in Saito's arms as she recovered on a wooden cot under a blue tarpaulin stretched over a metal clothes line.

``It's lucky it's not raining,'' said the attending nurse, Vaelin Gagahe, who delivered Saito's baby. The nurse has delivered three babies in two days at the makeshift network of tarpaulins and tents that sprung up to replace Gizo's hospital, partially destroyed by Monday's tsunami.

Health officials warn that without proper sanitation, the number of child deaths in the disaster zone could rise significantly. Unhygienic conditions and a lack of clean water have contributed to isolated cases of diarrhea and dysentery in some refugee camps, and international aid workers were scrambling to dig latrines and set up water purifiers.

Earlier this week, the United Nations warned that up to 30,000 children could be affected by the disaster, including 15,000 under the age of five.

``These children are highly vulnerable to hunger, disease and the disruption of their normal lives and protective social systems, and require urgent lifesaving assistance to survive,'' the U.N. said in a statement.

Saito's husband, a ship captain, was helping to unload relief supplies from a boat that arrived in Gizo early Saturday and had not yet seen his daughter _ the couple's first surviving child. They had a boy in 2004, but he died shortly after birth.

The 23-year-old mother went into labor just before dawn in the hillside camp where she and hundreds of others have taken refuge away from their low-lying homes, many of which were badly damaged by the 8.1 magnitude quake and the killer waves that followed.

Saito's home was only partially damaged, but like many others, she has been too afraid to return because of the many aftershocks _ including several registering magnitude 6 or higher _ that have rattled the region since Monday.

She and her husband have no tent, and have been sleeping in the open air. She is not sure whether they will return home now that their baby daughter has arrived.

According to the U.N., an average of 20 children die per 1,000 live births in the Solomons _ a rate that exceeds many South Pacific nations, but is well below that of neighboring Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

There were no official estimates of the number of cases of diarrhea and dysentery. Stefan Knollmeyer of Australian aid group AusAID said he was optimistic that basic sanitation measures _ such as pit toilets, water purification tablets and soap _ could contain the problem.

The United Nations has set the death toll from Monday's disaster at 34 people, while Solomons' official toll is 28. However, many villagers have been burying the dead as they find them, and some deaths may never be reported to officials.

Knollmeyer said the current estimates seem accurate based on AusAID's survey so far.

``It may go up another 10. There are still reports of missing people, but it's not going to jump (much higher),'' he told The Associated Press from a command center in Gizo.

He said up to 7,000 people had been left homeless by the disaster _ far fewer than originally feared. Earlier this week, the premier of the western province, Alex Lokopio, said as many as 40,000 of the region's 90,000 people may have lost their homes.

Meanwhile, aid continued to flow into the region after days of delays caused by transport bottlenecks and government bureaucracy. Two large boats docked in Gizo early Saturday carrying supplies and about two dozen troops from Australia and New Zealand, including five medics and six sanitation experts.

More than 2,500 tarpaulins and 1.2 tons of rice have been distributed to the camps around Gizo and some of the surrounding islands, and more supplies are on the way.

Relief has been slow to reach the region's outlying islands, however, and villagers have complained they are running low on food, shelter and other emergency supplies.