BANGKOK -- At least 40 percent of those killed in Myanmar's cyclone were children and hundreds more have lost their parents, a leading charity said Tuesday, as the UN warned young victims now face further trauma.
Part of the reason for the cyclone's devastating toll on young people is simple demographics, with 40 percent of Myanmar's population younger than 18, according to Save the Children spokesman Dan Collinson.
But children are also the least able to survive powerful winds and towering tidal waves sparked by Cyclone Nargis, Collinson said.
"To be honest it's highly likely to be more than 40 percent, because children are less likely to withstand these kinds of storm surges," Collinson told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "Children are that much more vulnerable."
Survivors of the cyclone, which left at least 62,000 dead or missing, have told AFP horrific stories of clinging to tree branches as the storm surge swept away their villages, sending waves crashing over the tops of trees.
Parents saw their children ripped from their arms by the powerful currents. Among the children who survived, hundreds have been separated from their parents or become orphans, Collinson said.
"We've heard reports of 300 children living in a camp that have been separated" from their parents, said Kathryn Rowe, also of Save the Children.
"So they may have extended families there but they have been separated from their parents."
In the hardest-hit regions of the Irrawaddy delta, hungry and barefoot children dressed in rags have been left begging on roadsides.
AFP reporters have seen children trying to catch fish and crabs in muddy canals, surrounded by the bloated corpses of the dead.
Many anguished parents there told AFP that they have nothing but coconuts and bananas to feed their children. With no substantial meals, young survivors are beginning to weaken and fall ill.
The United Nations estimates that one fifth of children living in the disaster zone are now suffering from diarrhea. Without access to clean drinking water, diarrhea can prove lethal in emergencies such as this.
Thousands of children have found shelter in temporary relief camps with access to only scant supplies of rice and just a few toilets between them.
In addition to the displacement caused by the storm, the latest UN report on the crisis said officials had received reports of entire families being forcibly moved from their villages to other parts of the country unaffected by the cyclone.
The UN children's fund UNICEF says 3,000 schools were wiped out by the cyclone, leaving 500,000 children without classrooms as holidays are set to end early next month.
The agency said it was working to create makeshift schools in relief camps, in the hope of giving children a semblance of normal life.
"In any situation where you have children living under extremely stressful conditions, both physically and emotionally, it is important that they are provided with a space where they feel safe and provided for," said Ramesh Shrestha, UNICEF representative in Myanmar.
In just one township in the delta, UNICEF said it is trying to identify the parents of 24 children sheltering with strangers.
Now the greatest risk to children are infectious diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria caused by flooding and a lack of clean water, the agency said.