A case of the deadly, waterborne disease cholera has been confirmed in Pakistan's flood-ravaged northwest, and aid workers expect it is not isolated, the U.N. said Saturday. The chilling discovery underscores the latest threat to the millions whose lives have been disrupted by the crisis and came as new flood surges hit the south.
Pakistan toned down its usually festive Independence Day celebrations Saturday in light of the flooding disaster, which has battered its economy and undermined its political stability at a time when the United States needs its steadfast cooperation against Islamist extremism.
The colorful, fireworks-heavy ceremony normally held at the presidency at midnight Aug. 14, the anniversary of Pakistan's creation and independence from Britain in 1947, was canceled. But Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani participated in a somber flag-raising in the morning, and TV channels broadcast stories about the South Asian country's early years.
Government leaders were expected to spend much of the day visiting flood victims. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also was expected to visit sometime soon, possibly over the weekend.
Around 1,500 people have died in the floods, which have affected directly or indirectly 14 million people. Aid workers have warned that diseases spread in the aftermath could raise the death toll.
One case of cholera had been fully confirmed in Mingora, the main town in the northwest's Swat Valley, U.N. spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said Saturday. Other cases were suspected, and aid workers are now responding to all those exhibiting acute watery diarrhea as if it is cholera, Giuliano said.
Cholera is "an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae," according to the World Health Organization. It can lead to severe dehydration and death without prompt treatment, and containing cholera outbreaks is considered a high priority following floods.
The Pakistani crisis began in late July, when unusually heavy monsoon rains tore through the country from its mountainous northwest. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed. The economy's biggest industry, agriculture, has been severely hit, with an estimated 1.7 million acres (nearly 700,000 hectares) of farmland wiped out.
Fresh flood waves swelled the River Indus on Saturday, threatening nearby cities, towns and villages in southern Sindh province, said Mohammed Ajmal Shad, a senior meteorologist. The Indus was already more than 15 miles (25 kilometers) wide at some points — 25 times wider than during normal monsoon seasons.
Authorities were trying to evacuate or warn people in Jacobabad, Hyderabad, Thatta, Ghotki, Larkana and other areas. Already, many flood victims are living in muddy camps or overcrowded government buildings, while thousands more are sleeping in the open next to their cows, goats and whatever possessions they managed to drag with them.
The U.N. has appealed for $460 million to help Pakistan get immediate relief, but officials have said the country will need billions to rebuild after the waters recede.
The damage to the Pakistani government's credibility, which was already shaky, may be even harder to repair, especially after fury caused by President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to visit Europe as the crisis was unfolding.
Pakistan was already struggling to battle a violent Islamist militant movement on its soil, and its offensives were considered important to the U.S. goals in the war in Afghanistan next door.
As President Barack Obama congratulated Pakistan on its Independence Day, which also marked the Muslim-majority nation's separation from India, he insisted the U.S. would not abandon the country in its time of need.
"We will remain committed to helping Pakistan and will work side by side with you and the international community toward a recovery that brings back the dynamic vitality of your nation," Obama said in a statement.