MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – Freezing temperatures have claimed the lives of least five Pakistani earthquake survivors, a U.N. health official said Wednesday, as a trickle of villagers descended from mountain settlements in Kashmir to seek shelter on lower ground.
Khalif Bile of the World Health Organization said the rate of acute respiratory infections has risen by as much as 19 percent, mostly among children, in the past week. He said five or six deaths have been reported from cold-related diseases since a weekend blast of rain and snow.
"There could be a further increase in the coming days. We need to keep children warm," he told The Associated Press.
U.N. official Zulifquar Wasim said helicopter relief flights resumed Wednesday after being grounded for three days by bad weather. American CH-47 Chinook helicopters and others provided by the U.N. and Pakistan's army carried flour and aid workers from Muzaffarabad to quake-hit villages.
Bile said 77 teams of five medics were moving through the quake zone to assess the health of survivors. The Oct. 8 quake left some 3.5 million people homeless.
Even as rain and snow subsided, Pakistan's Meteorological Department warned a cold wave would grip the earthquake zone this week. Temperatures were expected to plummet to as low as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the highest villages.
Since the 7.6-magnitude quake struck northern areas of Pakistan and India, killing more than 80,000 people, aid workers have urged people living above 5,000 feet to move to lower elevations. Many demurred, preferring not to leave their possessions, crops and cattle, as well as food donated by charities and government.
"I didn't want to come down from my village, but I did it because my one disabled son is not well," said Akhtar Zaman, 38, as he carried his son down a mud track near Muzaffarabad.
He said they were used to winter cold, but "this time we are worried because our homes have collapsed."
Noor Jahan, 23, a woman from the village of Athmaqam, said she left a mountainside tent in hopes of finding a warmer place to stay in Muzaffarabad. "It is very cold there," she said, raising her finger toward a snow-covered mountain.
Aid workers have warned that homeless villagers could stream to the lowlands once winter sets in. Army spokesman Maj. Farooq Nasir said, however, that there was no large-scale migration, and most people were still living in tents in their home areas.
"We have given winterized tents and shelters to people at mountaintops," he said. "Field hospitals are also available to people near their villages and towns."