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Fear of disease looms over the hungry in Aceh

Banda Aceh (Indonesia), Jan. 4 (Reuters): Hungry and filthy, Indonesians queued for water in their thousands today as aid deliveries to tsunami-ravaged Aceh province hit new snags and cases of disease and infection among survivors emerged.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said cases of pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and skin infections were emerging along with some cases of gangrene because survivors had been exposed to polluted water and not treated carefully enough.

Vijay Nath, a WHO medical officer supervising the emergency response programme in Banda Aceh, said he had a fairly good picture of the health situation in the provincial capital and there had been no confirmed cases of cholera. 'But on the west coast, we just don't know what is happening,' he said.

Late today, salvage crews dragged a crippled cargo jet off the runway at Banda Aceh. The airport was closed to fixed-wing craft overnight after the chartered Boeing 737 reportedly hit a water buffalo on landing and damaged its undercarriage. It had been handling round-the-clock flights rushing in disaster relief. Soldiers from the US, Australia, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Germany were unloading the precious cargo.

Parts of Banda Aceh city were deserted, especially the downtown area near the waterfront, where buildings were flattened by the massive December 26 quake and killer waves. Small fires smouldered in a desperate attempt to burn stacks of debris.

In front of a collapsed shopping mall where food and water were being distributed, at least 1,000 people queued for water from a private aid station set up by businessmen.

Volunteers handed out rice, marking people's fingers with ink that would wash off after a day to allow them to collect more. Residents said that, outside the huge makeshift refugee camps, it was still a struggle to get adequate food and water for their families, many of whom were injured or sick.

'If you don't live in a refugee camp, you have to queue like this. It's very hard for us also out here,' Ramzi, 27, said as he queued for water. He said he and 15 relatives were living in a house undamaged by the tsunami. The health ministry said nearly 400,000 people were refugees in Aceh.

In Banda Aceh city earlier, an Australian military water purification station doled out large plastic bags of water. A machine the size of a large truck stood near 11 big black plastic tubes full of water.

'This is probably the most important thing. If they can get clean water, it's going to have a major impact,' Australian air force Corporal Peter Clarke said. 'People want to shake your hand. They say: 'Bless you mister'. They say: 'Indonesia has problems, but you help us'.'

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