GENEVA: A month-old battle for Libya's capital Tripoli risks causing an "exponential" rise in civilian casualties as well as outbreaks of deadly diseases including cholera, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
Both sides are using ever more sophisticated weapons in a conflict straining life-saving hospital supplies near front lines that will last only a few more weeks, Dr. Syed Jaffar Hussain, WHO representative in Libya, also said in an interview.
So far, 443 people have been killed and 2,110 injured since the assault by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's forces on the internationally-recognized government, according to WHO. Twenty-three civilians have died, including four health workers.
At least 60,000 people who have fled the fighting in southern outskirts are in makeshift refuges, swelling the city center's nearly half a million population, Hussain added.
"The numbers will increase definitely, because the fighting is closing in toward the center, or the more populated area in Tripoli, where then there is a higher likelihood that more and more civilians will be trapped in the cross-fire and there will be more and more civilian casualties," he told Reuters.
"LIKELIHOOD OF CHOLERA"
WHO medical teams have performed 200 major surgeries in past weeks, as the United Nations pushes for a ceasefire in a nation split and anarchic since the 2011 toppling of Muammar Gaddafi.
"For the time being, looking at the number of injured, and the number of those being affected, these supplies can cater for 3 to 4 weeks," said Hussain, a Pakistani expert deployed by WHO in hotspots from Afghanistan to Iraq for the last 20 years.
"But if there is no ceasefire and there is no reduction in the scale, scope and intensity of the conflict, even if it goes by the current intensity, we will run out of these supplies."
Trauma kits to treat the wounded have been stockpiled in Tripoli, Benghazi and Sabha, but medicines for chronic disease patients with diabetes or epilepsy are needed, he said.
Because of the crisis, WHO is seeking an additional US$12 million from donors on top of its annual US$42 million appeal for Libya. "We appeal to all the donors, that at the moment even if the (casualty/displacement) numbers are not that high, in the coming weeks these numbers will exponentially increase."
With summer coming, those forced out of their homes are susceptible to diarrhoea and diseases due to contaminated water and food, crowding and bad sanitation facilities.
"There is likelihood now of cholera, for example, in these IDP (internally displaced person) dwellings because the water and sanitation is compromised," he said, also noting risks of hepatitis, typhoid, measles and tuberculosis.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)