On the brink of a public health disaster
Need coordinated efforts
Bangladesh's refugee camps are on the brink of a "public health disaster". Since August 2017, more than 624,000 people have gathered in densely populated temporary settlements in Bangladesh with poor access to clean water, sanitation and health services. These huge numbers of refugees are already in health danger and now, the World Health Organisation has warned that diphtheria is rapidly spreading among Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.
The statement was given from the Geneva. In this statement the UN agency said more than 110 suspected cases, including 6 deaths, have been clinically diagnosed by health partners, including Médecins Sans Fronti�res (MSF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). At the same time, Doctors Without Borders warned the risk of an infectious disease outbreak was "very high" given the rapid population increase and low vaccination coverage among the Rohingya, who lived in impoverished conditions in Myanmar.
These cases could be just the tip of the iceberg. We know that Rohingyas are 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.
It appeared to be a new challenge for Bangladesh, where the highly infectious bacterial disease was eliminated decades ago. However, the WHO is working with the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, UNICEF and partners to contain the spread of the highly infectious respiratory disease through effective treatment and adequate prevention.
More than 700,000 people have received the oral cholera vaccine and more than 350,000 children with measles-rubella vaccine in a campaign that ended Tuesday. Now the government and the aid organization have to deal with diphtheria.
The WHO says that they are supporting patient diagnosis and treatment, ensuring adequate supplies of medicines, and preparing a vaccination campaign targeting all children up to 6 years with pentavalent (DPT-HepB-Hib) and pneumococcal vaccines, which protect against diphtheria and other diseases. Training is already underway for vaccinators.
The WHO has procured an initial 1,000 vials of diphtheria antitoxins that are due to arrive in Bangladesh by the weekend. Combined with antibiotics, the antitoxins can save the lives of people already infected with diphtheria, by neutralizing the toxins produced by the deadly bacteria.
It is good that, the government of Bangladesh is working with the partners to ensure that clinical guidance is available to health workers, and that there are enough beds and medicines for those who get sick. However, the only way to control this outbreak is to protect people, particularly children, through vaccination.