Save the Children Health Teams Respond to Deadly Diphtheria Outbreak in Rohingya Camps

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (December 14, 2017)— Save the Children health workers are on high alert for cases of the deadly disease diphtheria, which has so far claimed the lives of at least 15 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh.

The preventable disease is no longer common in the western world because of vaccinations. There have recently been cases in Yemen, Indonesia and now in the camps for over 628,000 Rohingya people forced to fleehuman rights atrocities in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar.

“It will be a challenging December for the humanitarian community here that is rallying to control the diphtheria outbreak,” said Maria Tsolka, Save the Children's leading health specialist working in Cox's Bazar.

“The entire humanitarian community is alert to the crisis. We are coordinating closely together and working alongside the Bangladesh Ministry of Health to ensure we reach everyone who needs treatment and to contain the spread of the disease,” Tsolka added.

Save the Children runs a network of seven community health posts in the camps and will soon open two more. Staffed by experienced doctors and nurses, they see between 50 and 100 people a day who present with a range of conditions such as skin disease and fever. They also treat children for severe acute malnutrition and provide sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls. Now they are screening for diphtheria as well.

Diphtheria is transmitted from person-to-person respiratory droplets, like coughing and sneezing. Poor hand hygiene contributes to transmission too. It can be fatal in more than 10 percent of cases but this can increase in overcrowded camps with limited access to health services,” Tsolka said

In response to the health emergency, Save the Children has begun the roll out of a home visit program to check on the families and close contacts of diphtheria patients that had recently visited its health posts and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) facilities. The aim is to provide them with a seven-day course of oral antibiotics as a preventative measure and to contain the transmission of the disease. Health staff will immediately refer any suspected cases of diphtheria for hospital care and treatment to an MSF dedicated facility.

Currently MSF is the only organization in Cox’s Bazar that canadministertreatment for these patients, while others, including Save the Children, are gearing up tosupport swiftidentification of suspected cases and diagnoses to attempt to contain the spread of the disease.

Also this week, Save the Children will begin the roll out of planned child vaccination programs through its health posts in the camps. This includes vaccination against diphtheria among other diseases. The international humanitarian organization will also vaccinate almost 1,400 aid workers and volunteers currently working in different programs. The vaccine will be provided by the Bangladesh Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

"While we hoped there would not be an outbreak of diphtheria, we quickly mobilized our Emergency Health Unit on the ground here and trained our health staff to detect clinical signs of the disease and to be familiar with the referrals process set by the World Health Organization and agreed with the Ministry of Health of Bangladesh. The disease is curable with anti-toxins and antibiotics if detected early and referred to appropriate health services,” Tsolka said.

“We also trained stafffrom other parts of our response like shelter and child protection to detect signs of the disease. This includes our partner’s networks of teachers at Temporary Learning Spaces and Child Friendly Spaces. In total, we have orientatedmore than 400 staff in the past two days.

The vaccination of children under 7-years-old started on December 12. The mass vaccination campaign for 7 to 15 year-olds starts on December 17. This will be done at dedicated vaccinations points throughout the camps.

Save the Children Bangladesh Country Director Mark Pierce said issues around water and sanitation must be urgently addressed, and that mass vaccination campaigns as well as routine immunization programs must be carried out among the camp population.

“The response to this outbreak requires an urgent lift of funding to ensure we can contain it, and save lives,” he said.

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