In addition to the assessment missions, in the last 48 hours UNICEF has also delivered hundreds of cartons of high-energy biscuits for children and medical kits capable of meeting the needs of 220,000 people to the affected areas.
"We are very concerned about the immediate threat of malnutrition," said Dr. Sergio Soro, speaking from the UNICEF office in Antananarivo. "If our assessments prove valid across the island, the loss of the rice crop could be devastating; it could mean serious malnutrition for hundreds of thousands of people. Malnutrition will make people more vulnerable to illness, exacerbating serious health problems. And the loss of cash crops like bananas and coffee takes away people's livelihood at the same time. The floods here have created a spiral of disaster. It's just awful."
Approximately 551,000 people - half of them children - have been affected by the two cyclones that have ravaged the island. Some 12,000 people remain completely isolated by flooding.
"We learned from the Mozambique situation and got our supplies moving early," Soro said. "We didn't wait for the assessment missions. We just immediately mobilized the medical supplies, biscuits and blankets we had on hand, and we brought in a 20-tonne additional shipment on Monday.
"But we're still only a half-step ahead of serious health and nutrition problems," Soro added. "We cannot afford to lose even a day in this crisis."
The international assessment team organised by the National Relief Council, which included a UNICEF health officer, focused its work on the Andapa and Sanbara districts along the island's north-east coast, where 40 deaths have been confirmed and at least 23 people are still missing. Rice crops were completely submerged, fuel was in short supply (driving up prices five-fold), and roads into the district were cut. Further south in the Antalaka District, assessment teams were venturing into rural areas on foot because of damage to roads. Corpses were seen floating down river and settling on the beaches.
The key obstacle to broader assessment missions and relief deliveries has been a lack of logistical capacity. Two Antonov cargo planes from the Government of Madagascar and a few light aircraft are available at present. Two helicopters may be arriving from Mozambique, supplied by the British Government. In addition the French Government has offered five helicopters. Road access remains limited; an aerial assessment made Thursday showed that roads have been blocked by landslides in many areas, suggesting travel throughout the affected regions may be especially risky for heavy loads.
There are continued reports of malaria and cholera outbreaks in affected areas. Madagascar already experiences high levels of malaria and cholera throughout the country. In the last twelve months over 19,000 cases of cholera have been reported, resulting in over 1,100 deaths. Following the cyclones, large areas of stagnant water are encouraging mosquitoes, thus increasing the risk of malaria epidemics. UNICEF Madagascar has procured 700,000 water purification tablets to help provide safe drinking water.
Madagascar has a population of roughly 15 million people, of which half are under the age of 18. Three-quarters of the population is rural, and GNP per capita is estimated at $250, making it one the 20 poorest nations in the world. Even before the flood crisis, only 40 percent of Madagascar's people had access to safe water and adequate sanitation.
For more information on UNICEF, visit its web site at http://www.unicef.org