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Villagers sift through rubble of homes in the Solomon Islands; U.N. warns of malaria risk

GIZO, Solomon Islands — Villagers buried their dead where they found them — including two young boys discovered Thursday in one shattered community — as frustration mounted over delayed help for survivors of the Solomon Islands’ devastating earthquake and tsunami.
    The United Nations released its first estimates of the human toll from the disaster, saying about 50,000 people had been affected, including 30,000 children who are ‘‘highly vulnerable’’ to malaria due to inadequate medical supplies and unsanitary conditions.
    The U.N. also put the death toll from Monday’s 8.1-magnitude quake and tsunami at 34 people — higher than the government’s tally of 28, although officials have said that is likely to rise.
    More than three days after the disaster, there was still no official tally of the missing. Conditions remained unknown at dozens of villages along the battered coastal region.
    In Gizo, the main town in the hardest-hit Western Province, flattened homes lay in heaps of splintered wood, twisted tin roofs and other debris. As men searched through the rubble, aid workers tended to the injured on the grass under tarpaulins. On an overturned water tank, someone had written, ‘‘No Hope Wet Monday.’’
    At Titiana, a village six miles from Gizo but unreachable by vehicle because chunks of concrete had been washed out of the road, residents buried two young boys they had found in the rubble of shattered houses, using a salvaged trunk for one coffin and scraps of debris for the other. The boys’ parents remained missing.
    Rev. Tikeri Birlata, a minister in the village, said people were burying bodies quickly because they were worried about the smell and possible disease. He said he was angry that no help had reached the village yet.
    ‘‘It’s really slow ... and the people are really suffering,’’ he said.
    Government officials acknowledged the aid effort was going more slowly than they hoped, blaming the remoteness of the affected region and a shortage of relief supplies in the capital, Honiara.
    Drinking water was in extremely short supply in Gizo, as well as food, medicine and clothes.
    ‘‘Aid is very slow in getting to the people who need it, the distribution part is very slow,’’ government spokesman Alfred Maesulia said after a meeting of the National Disaster Council.
    Jonathan Taisia, head of the Red Cross center in Gizo, said aid workers needed bigger vehicles to move supplies and more volunteers to load trucks and clear debris-strewn roads.
    On the upside, the airport at Gizo reopened Thursday, allowing military transport planes from New Zealand and Australia to land with aid packages of tarps, water and food rations. More supplies arrived in the town of Munda, a three-hour boat ride away.
    Meanwhile, disease remained a significant concern among the thousands of people left homeless by the quake and tsunami, many of whom were huddled in rudimentary camps in the hills, afraid to return to the coasts.
    Reports of diarrhea were becoming more widespread, and officials worried about possible malaria and cholera outbreaks in the more than dozen makeshift high-ground camps.
    ‘‘Sanitation is a big issue that needs to be addressed urgently,’’ said Allen Alepio, part of a team of six doctors and 15 nurses who opened a clinic near Gizo on Thursday. ‘‘The children especially are getting diarrhea.’’
    The United Nations launched an appeal seeking $500,000 in donations, and said it planned to open eight field hospitals in the disaster zone.
    ‘‘With thousands crowded into temporary shelters and living quarters, ensuring that the water and sanitation structures are re-established as quickly as possible is critical,’’ the U.N. warned in a statement.
    Alex Lokopio, the premier of Western Province, said many more people could be homeless than the government’s initial estimate of 5,600.
    Of the region’s 90,000 people, most live along the coast and the tsunami ‘‘washed all their houses away,’’ he said, estimating those with damaged homes at up to 40,000.
    Lokopio wrote to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Thursday asking that he request more help from Australia and New Zealand, who have troops in the islands as part of a multinational security force.

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