, January 6, 2005
(STAR) By Marichu Villanueva and Sandy Araneta  -  Even as President Arroyo arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia to attend the Asian tsunami summit, a medical team from the Philippines arrives in Sri Lanka to help in relief efforts there.

The President said her trip to Jakarta is "urgent diplomacy," adding that she intends to "forge Filipino solidarity with the victims of the Asian disaster" that killed nearly 150,000 people in 11 countries in Asia and Africa and displaced about five million more people.

Mrs. Arroyo and other heads of state attending the summit will discuss the proposal to set up a common tsunami warning system in coastal regions along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Such a warning system already exists in the Pacific Rim.

"The domestic agenda is just as important as the regional agenda," the President said in a prepared statement she read at the Palace yesterday noon before leaving for Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, where she took a chartered Lear jet to Jakarta.

"Work is to be done in Jakarta as work has to be done in Manila," she added.

The tsunami summit will be opened by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will declare a minute of silence for those who died from the tsunamis that battered Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and the Maldives.

These countries were hit hard by tsunamis spawned by the 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed that five Filipinos were killed, 19 were reported missing and 22 others were injured in the disaster.

After Yudhoyono, the next speakers at the summit will be Laotian Prime Minister Boungnang Volachit as current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsieng-Loong — who proposed holding of the the summit — and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The President was accompanied on the flight to Jakarta by Defense Secretary and National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) head Avelino Cruz, Armed Forces chief Gen. Efren Abu and former ASEAN secretary-general Ambassador Rodolfo Severino, who is now a presidential adviser.

DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo led the President’s advance party to Jakarta, which included DFA Undersecretary Sonia Brady, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, Health Undersecretary Margarita Galon and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology director Rene Solidum.

Before leaving for Jakarta, Bunye said the President would "actively" push for the creation of a regional tsunami warning system.

"The best way of serving the memory of those who perished in the tragedy is to make sure that future generations are in safer hands," he said.

"The President will travel to Jakarta to support the call for solidarity and action on the issue of preparedness, as well as the imperative of sustained reconstruction and to offer the broad array of Filipino skills and expertise in these efforts," he said.

Bunye said the President will also take the opportunity presented by the summit to again thank the international community for the assistance given to the Philippines for the victims of the disaster spawned by four powerful and successive typhoons that ravaged Southern Luzon.

Given the magnitude of destruction wrought by the Asian disaster and the ongoing international relief effort - reportedly the largest such operation in history - the President said Filipinos will have to rely on themselves to continue the rehabilitation of areas in Southern Luzon struck by typhoons "Violeta," "Undang," "Winnie" and "Yoyong."

Mercy Mission

The Philippines has dispatched a team of forensic experts from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and a 12-member medical team specializing in disaster and trauma management to some of the countries worst-hit by the tsunami.

The Filipino team of doctors, nurses, and engineers sent by the Department of Health (DOH) left for Sri Lanka yesterday to participate in relief operations there.

Two-thirds of Sri Lanka was battered by the Dec. 26 tsunamis that ravaged coastal areas along the rim of the Indian Ocean and thousands have been reported dead or missing.

The Philippine medical team is led by Dr. Romeo Almazan Bituin of the Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital. Bituin specializes in anesthesiology and disaster management.

The other members of the DOH team are doctors Joseph Espinosa, Vilma dela Cruz, Luis Juan Arroyo and Miguel Lao; nurses Aida Cuadra, Mary Ivy Ocampo, Oliver Maat, Ruth Badic and Venus Cariño; and engineer Joselito Riego de Dios of the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control (NCDPC).

The team of doctors, trauma specialists and sanitary engineers had worked in post-war Iraq and Southern Luzon.

"What we have heard is that there have nothing there (in southern Sri Lanka), not even electricity, no food, nothing," Bituin said. "The eastern, northern and southern parts of Sri Lanka are affected. Two-thirds of the country is affected."

He said Sri Lanka faces a shortage of food and safe water and possible peace and order problems due to the lack of relief aid and medicines.

Bituin and his colleagues will be the first relief team from the Philippines to arrive in the stricken country, he said, adding that "there is another (medical relief) group from the Philippines bound for Indonesia," where the death toll from the disaster is already at 100,000.

"We are supposed to stay for 10 to 15 days, but (Health) Secretary (Manuel Dayrit) said we should be prepared to stay there for a longer time, maybe one month, in order to save money," he said.

Bituin said they will be bringing 54 balikbayan boxes filled with medicines and small medical monitoring equipment and one 40-kilo pail of chlorine to sanitize areas where outbreaks of acute gastritis and cholera have been reported.

"These diseases are also present in evacuation centers," he added.

Bituin was told by the Sri Lankan Ambassador that Sri Lanka does not have enough doctors and nurses to attend to the needs of its tsunami victims.

"We will do networking once we get there," he said. "We have no idea what the demographics are in the (disaster) areas. We do not even know the terrain or where we will specifically go."


The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) yesterday issued a special prayer for the tsunami victims.

The prayer, titled "Prayer for the World in the Wake of Tsunami Disaster in Southeast Asia and Africa," was composed by the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Liturgy.

It will be read in all parishes nationwide at the First Friday Holy Hour on Jan. 7. All the Masses on Sunday, Jan. 9, were designated by the CBCP as a special day of prayer for the tsunami victims.

Part of the prayer reads: "We seek comfort from You, from whom all goodness and consolation come. We struggle with our hearts and minds to find meaning in face of all these sufferings and death of many children, men and women of many people of different races. We mourn with the survivors, striving to silently bear that which we know is but a small fraction of the profound sense of loss of their loved ones, of their earthly possessions and of the beauty of their habitats."

The prayer also made special mention of world leaders, international agencies and relief workers, "that they may lead all to respond with generosity to the cry for help of the victims of this tragedy, to rise from the rubble of disaster to a new life filled with hope and dignity."

Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales has directed all parishes, schools, religious communities and transparochial movements in the archdiocese to devote the Holy Hour on Jan. 7 to the victims of the tsunami and the powerful typhoons that recently hit the Philippines, especially the towns of Infanta, Real and General Nakar in Quezon province.

The archbishop issued liturgical guidelines for the Holy Hour, as well as for the Day of Prayer on Jan. 9.

The Holy Hour, during which the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place, is often held after the First Friday Masses, a popular devotion among the Catholics in the country.

The archbishop also asked that a collection of donations to be used in relief operations for the victims of the tsunami and the typhoons be done during the Holy Hour.

In a related report, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Director Malcolm Sarmiento Jr. said in a statement that "the latest rumor circulating through (text messaging) that a dangerous virus called Zulican virus is being spread by contaminated seafood as an aftermath of the tsunami disaster is not true. The BFAR is categorically denying the presence of Zulican virus in fish."

"Such virus, in fact, does not exist," Sarmiento said. "The (BFAR) is advising people to disregard the text message." - With Nikko Dizon

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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