Rohingya refugee camps face shortage of diphtheria medicine

  • 29/12/2017
Rohingya refugees line up to receive blankets at the Kutupalong refugee settlement.
Rohingya refugees line up to receive blankets at the Kutupalong refugee settlement. Photo credit: 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.

Neighbouring Myanmar's military cracked down on Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine state following Rohingya militant attacks on an army base and police posts on August 25.

More than 650,000 Rohingya have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017, on top of more than 200,000 who fled earlier, according to the 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 2000 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 said.

"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 UN report in February 2017, supply of diphtheria antitoxin serum has been limited for many years and the shortage is expected to continue.