WHO Concerned About Potential Disease Epidemics Among Libyan Refugees In Tunisia

Disease epidemics threaten tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Libya and crossed over into southern Tunisia, Eric Laroche, WHO assistant director-general for Health Action in Crises, said at a news briefing on Thursday, Agence France-Presse reports.

“There is not for the moment a humanitarian crisis in the proper sense of the term. But the risks of epidemics are real,” Laroche said, adding, “We have a concentration of several tens of thousands of people. There are all the ingredients for an epidemic explosion.” Laroche, who visited an area where refugees have gathered, said he witnessed “enormous overcrowding and a lack of hygienic conditions” and added that “the pressing need is to have fewer and fewer people who are concentrated there.”

“We need to repatriate them by plane and ship and to set up a system to monitor epidemics and provide early warning of contagious diseases,” Laroche said, adding that $3 million is needed to cover WHO’s immediate expenses in southern Tunisia (3/3). “Meanwhile, WHO’s representative in Tunisia, Stephano Lazzari, said emergency measures had been taken in view of setting up an early warning system to detect potential epidemics among the refugees,” Xinhua notes (3/3).

AFP reports the World Food Program (WFP) announced an emergency aid operation to help people in the region(3/3). In a news item on its website, WFP said: “In response to the humanitarian crisis on Libya’s borders, WFP is launching a $39.2 million emergency operation to provide food assistance to 1.06 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia” (3/2). On Thursday, the “European commissioner in charge of international cooperation, humanitarian aid and reaction to crises, Kristalina Gorgieva, announced in Tunisia that the European Union is allocating 10 million euros (13.9 million U.S. dollars) in aid to Tunisia to help evacuate the flow of refugees from Libya,” according to Xinhua (3/3).

Meanwhile, leaders from the U.N., EU, League of Arab States and Organization of the Islamic Conference on Thursday “urged Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to allow immediate access to aid workers to head off a humanitarian crisis,” Bloomberg reports.

In a statement, the U.N. said: “There is a strong need for urgent relief – food, water, sanitation and shelter to the thousands on both sides of the Tunisian and Egyptian borders due to significant population movements, mainly of migrant workers … It is also necessary to prepare for a further possible escalation of humanitarian needs should conditions deteriorate inside Libya” (Varner, 3/3).