Disease Outbreaks Plague Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

FILE - Rohingya refugee Yasin Arfat, 6, who suffers from diphtheria, lays on a bed at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

At Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, unclean water, cramped living quarters and squalid conditions create a prime environment for outbreaks of preventable diseases among the estimated 650,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled strife in neighboring Myanmar.

While 900,000 doses of oral cholera vaccine already have been delivered by more than 200 mobile vaccination teams, another contagious bacterial infection, diphtheria, has emerged.

"Diphtheria is a vaccine preventable disease. It's an illustration of how the Rohingya population that are living in the makeshift settlements here had very little access to health care in their place of origin in Myanmar," said Kate Nolan, emergency coordinator with international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

Diphtheria often causes the buildup of a sticky grey-white membrane in the throat or nose. The infection causes airway obstruction and damage to the heart and nervous system. The fatality rate increases without the diphtheria antitoxin.

"This is an extremely vulnerable population with low vaccination coverage, living in conditions that could be a breeding ground for infectious diseases like cholera, measles, rubella and diphtheria," said Dr. Navaratnasamy Paranietharan, the World Health Organization representative to Bangladesh.

Myanmar's health sector is rated among the worst in the world, particularly in the ethnic regions where conflict and poverty have delayed medical development.

The Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar's northern Rakhine state after insurgents attacked security forces in late August, prompting a military crackdown that has since been described as ethnic cleansing.

'Appalling' health care

Myanmar's government denies it has engaged in ethnic cleansing, and it insists that a majority of the violence and burning of Rohingya villages was done by the Rohingya militants who attacked the Myanmar security forces.

"The health care facilities for the Rohingya in Rakhine state are appalling and just a small amount of the needs were being met, even before the attacks in August," said Rohingya expert Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a human rights organization that monitors and documents the situation.

FILE - Rohingya refugees, who suffer from diphtheria, are treated at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Dec. 18, 2017.

According to Lewa, the impoverished Rohingya population in northern Rakhine say they are treated with discrimination by Myanmar medical staff at government hospitals and face severe movement restrictions when traveling to health care facilities.

Lewa points to Myanmar's Maungdaw District, where the army conducted so-called "clearance operations" following deadly insurgent attacks last year.

"Health facilities set up by INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] in Maungdaw have been burned to the ground, which will make it even more difficult for them if and when they are allowed to return," Lewa added.

Currently, INGOs are not allowed in the areas outside Maungdaw.

Doctors Without Borders has responded to the rapid spread of diphtheria in neighboring Bangladesh by converting one of its mother and child inpatient facilities at the Balukhali makeshift settlement, and at another inpatient site, into treatment centers.

"The emergence of this disease is a concern because it contributes to an existing precarious public health situation that we have in the makeshift settlements," Nolan said.

Tracking down carriers

Now, potential carriers must get antitoxins and antibiotics to prevent the further spread of the bacterium and kill it.

"We need to find all the suspected cases in the camps and get them all here to start the antibiotic treatment and keep them isolated for 48 hours," said on-duty doctor Thomas Hansen.

Because the disease spreads easily through water droplets from sneezing and coughing, medical teams are tasked with following up on initial quarantine with visits to a patient's family to trace and treat people who might have come in contact with the disease in the community.

Doctors Without Borders and health partners like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are working together to isolate suspected cases.

One of the biggest challenges for health workers, however, is getting to remote locations where potential outbreaks can occur.