Rare Disease Finds Fertile Ground In Rohingya Refugee Camps

Patients are treated at the Samaritan's Purse diphtheria clinic in the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Chittagong district, Bangladesh. Allison Joyce for NPR

Diphtheria poses one more threat to already beleaguered Rohingya refugees.

The outbreak started in the sprawling camps in Bangladesh in November soon after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya arrived. It appeared to have peaked around New Year's but now there is renewed concern as the potentially fatal disease continues to spread.

"Yesterday was a very busy day for us," Dr. Andy Doyle said earlier this week at the Samaritan's Purse diphtheria treatment center in the Balukhali refugee camp. "We saw 117 patients come in to be screened [for diphtheria]. That's the most we've seen in any given day."

By mid-January, there had been nearly 5,000 reported cases of diphtheria in the camps and 33 deaths.  Allison Joyce for NPR

Doyle is the medical director of the tented field hospital.

The waiting area, which is just some benches under a tarp roof, is jammed with people waiting to be checked for diphtheria. Doyle says it looks as if they could have a record number of patients for a second day in a row.

Doyle and his team only treat diphtheria at this facility. So the very first thing the staff members do is screen the patient for the disease and make sure it's not just a bad cold.

Patients with diphtheria have a high fever, a sore throat, often a runny nose and severe inflammation in the back of the throat.    Allison Joyce for NPR

"[Diphtheria] is not something we see in the West," Doyle says of the airborne bacterial infection. "Most of us from the West that are working here never saw this disease until we got here a week or two ago. And now we're experts on it."

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Diphtheria isn't seen in the West because almost everyone is vaccinated against it. Doyle says the disease turns out to be pretty easy to identify. The patients have high fever, a sore throat, often a runny nose and severe inflammation in the back of their throat.

"Sometimes they get swelling in their necks, especially in the younger children, and their neck itself will get really big," he says. "It's called bull neck. And those are the signs that the airway is in impending danger. So that's what we look for."

That's how diphtheria kills: The neck swells up and a membrane develops in the throat that blocks breathing.

One day this past week, 117 patients came into the clinic to be screened for diphtheria.    Allison Joyce for NPR

As of the middle of January there'd been nearly 5,000 reported cases of diphtheria in the camps and 33 deaths. This is a far lower fatality rate than in past diphtheria outbreaks. That's probably because patients get access to health care quickly in the half a dozen clinics that have sprung up in the camps.

Simple cases of diphtheria can be treated with antibiotics. But if the airway is in danger of being blocked, an anti-toxin is administered via an intravenous drip to wipe out a poison that the bacteria makes. But the anti-toxin has the potential to spark a fatal reaction.

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In a ward in a white tent behind the reception area, Nur Aysia Begum is on hour two of what could be a six-hour treatment with the anti-toxin. She's one of the more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees who arrived in this camp five months ago to escape what the U.N. has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military.