Rohingya at risk of deadly diphtheria face shortage of medics, antitoxins

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(Reuters) – Health workers in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are struggling with a shortage of medics able to administer antitoxins to patients infected with diphtheria that has killed nearly two dozen people, aid officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees, who suffer from diphtheria, are being treated at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Neighbouring Myanmar’s military cracked down on Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine state following Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police posts on Aug. 25. More than 650,000 Rohingya have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh since August, on top of more than 200,000 who fled earlier, according to latest United Nations data.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the lead agency dealing with an outbreak of the bacterial disease in camps sheltering the Rohingya, has treated around 2,000 patients in the past few weeks and is receiving around 100 new cases daily.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes diphtheria as a widespread, severe infectious disease with epidemic potential and a mortality rate of up to 10 percent. MSF has called diphtheria a disease “long forgotten in most parts of the world thanks to increasing rates of vaccination”.

MSF has managed to provide antitoxins to only around 12 patients daily due to the lack of trained medics, said Crystal van Leeuwen, an MSF emergency medical coordinator now in Cox’s Bazar where the refugee camps are located.

“Once we do have enough people and other organisations start to administer as well, we may get into a situation where we don’t have enough antitoxins anymore,” she told Reuters by phone on Thursday.

“It’s a double-edged sword. We need both the human resources to administer it, and we need more antitoxins at the same time.”

According to a U.N. report in February, supply of diphtheria antitoxin serum has been limited for many years and the shortage is expected to continue through 2017.

The British government said on Thursday it was sending a team of more than 40 doctors, nurses and firefighters to Cox’s Bazar for six weeks to deal with the diphtheria outbreak following a request by the WHO and Bangladesh government.

The refugees live in densely populated camps and shacks made from bamboo and plastic sheets, with poor access to clean water, sanitation and health services.

Reporting by Krishna N. Das in NEW DELHI and Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR; additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in DHAKA

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