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Race against disease in Iran

With no thought for their own health, Iranian volunteers forged ahead  with the grim task of quickly burying earthquake victims in a race against the clock to stop disease spreading.
Iranian Red Crescent staff and volunteers carry the dead to buried in a mass-grave as a clergyman looks on in Bam on Dec. 28.
Iranian Red Crescent staff and volunteers carry the dead to buried in a mass-grave as a clergyman looks on in Bam on Dec. 28. Kamran Jebreili / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Iranian volunteers raced on Monday to dig graves for thousands of earthquake victims to prevent outbreaks of disease -- or worse, an epidemic.

"I feel I am burying Bam,” said Jamshid Rashidi, who has worked endless hours on a digging machine since Friday excavating trenches to bury the dead.

Rashidi, in his mid 20s, worked with a heavy heart as he and his colleagues were forced to abandon the Islamic practice of washing the corpse first. Islam demands burial within a day.

Rescue workers fear outbreaks of dysentery, diarrhea, diphtheria and tetanus could pose a massive problem in the days and weeks after the earthquake struck on Friday.

At a traffic island in Bam, physician Iraj Karimi, 33, set up a makeshift medical center in a tent. He was sitting at a table handing out antidotes to help quake survivors with diarrhea and other ailments.

“The water is not good. The hygiene is very poor,” he said. “We do not have enough medicine. People need medicine and better hygiene. Diarrhea is epidemic, especially among the children.”

But Argo Parts, a senior official with the U.N. rescue coordination team, said Iranian authorities were expressing confidence that they could prevent epidemics.

“The local authorities are quite sure there is no danger of epidemics,” Parts said, adding authorities were testing water quality two or three times daily. The United Nations is coordinating the work of 1,500 aid workers from 24 countries.

Diarrhea and dysentery
Four mobile hospitals have been brought in from abroad. But other officials warned the spread of disease was a danger.

“The threat of diarrhea, dysentery and influenza is serious in the region,” said Hamid Marashi, a UNICEF Iran communication officer.

Officials say the death toll could reach 30,000 in the world’s most lethal quake in at least 10 years. An estimated 25,000 have already been buried, with only about 2,000 people pulled alive from Bam’s rubble.

The smell of death surrounding them, volunteer gravediggers, protected by inoculations, toiled to try to prevent disease spreading from the dead to the living.

“I have received some injuries,” said Vasoul, 40, as he showed his hands bloodied from hours of digging graves and carrying bodies unceremoniously into the trenches. “And I am touching the corpses.”

Bulldozers cut trenches in the ground next to the cemetery and fully clothed bodies sprayed with disinfectant were lowered almost continuously into the makeshift graves.

But despite their efforts, Marashi said the shallow and poorly prepared graves may still fail to prevent epidemics.

“Mass graves will cause serious health problems in the future,” Marashi said.

A Red Crescent worker named Ali said they had no choice.

“Our main worry is the health problem,” he said. “We are trying to bury as many people as we can to prevent it. If we can’t bury all of them by Tuesday it will become a major problem because disease will spread to Kerman and other cities.”