Disease fears grow after deadly Philippines flood

MANILA - Philippines authorities Wednesday warned of a growing threat from disease in crowded evacuation centres, after devastating flash floods in the country's south that left at least 1,022 dead or missing.

The government said 44,000 people who have lost their homes and belongings are living in makeshift relief centres five days after tropical storm Washi brought rampaging floodwaters that swept away villages on Mindanao island.

Even as hundreds of dead bodies piled up at mortuaries, Assistant Health Secretary Eric Tayag said efforts should focus on the evacuation centres which he described as potential breeding grounds for epidemics.

"We may be paying so much attention to the corpses we will ignore the evacuation centres," Tayag said in an interview on ABS-CBN television. "If there is any epidemic or threat to health, it will come from the evacuation centres," he said.

In recent days, local authorities in the hard-hit port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan have struggled to deal with hundreds of decomposing bodies which have created an overpowering stench.

Iligan on Tuesday began burying the bodies of victims who have been identified and claimed by relatives, but both cities cancelled planned mass burials after strong public resistance.

Tayag insisted the dead bodies could not spread disease and said the priority was the evacuation centres where hundreds of children and elderly are huddled without enough food, safe drinking water or toilet facilities.

The government's disaster monitoring agency said it had tallied 976 dead and 46 missing from the disaster, with that number expected to rise as rescuers continue to collect bodies that had been swept out to sea.

The civil defence agency said that more than 348,000 people were affected by the storm with 276,000 people receiving emergency assistance, including 44,000 at evacuation centres made up mostly of schools and gymnasiums.

Many others are receiving government aid as they shelter with relatives - unable to return home as the government has said they will not be allowed to go back to potentially dangerous areas.