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Life in the time of Cholera

Dysentery, pneumonia and other diseases are growing threats, as sanitation facilities collapse at Rohingya refugee camps

Life in the time of Cholera

A Rohingya man collects water from a puddle at Kutupalong camp of Cox's Bazar on Sept. 14, 2017. (ucannews.com photo)

 

Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Bangladesh

November 9, 2017

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Rubina Akter is only 28 years old but she has already given birth to seven children, and like most mothers her greatest concern is for her children's welfare.

She and her husband fled the violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state over a month ago to the relative safety of the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where 100,000 Rohingya are crammed into shelters.

Now four of her children are ill and there are fears of disease outbreaks - such as cholera, dysentery and pneumonia - as the unsanitary, threadbare living conditions in the camp are made worse by monsoon rains and humidity.

"It's been a week since my two sons and a daughter suffered from diarrhea and they are still very weak. Most of the time they rest inside the tent," Rubina told ucanews.com.

"The condition of my 10-month-old daughter is not good either. She is weak and cannot eat properly. Aid workers came here a few days ago, and vaccinated them all to protect them from a cholera outbreak," she said.

The camp has limited water supplies with only about 300 manual wells, which refugees have to regularly queue at to fetch drinking water.

"Often we drink water from a nearby canal after boiling," Rubina says.

 

Rohingya wait to collect drinking water from manual pump well at Kutupalong camp of Cox's Bazar on Sept. 15, 2017. (photo ucan.news)

 

There are only a 100 toilets for the 100,000 refugees in Balukhali, so there are always long queues.

"We go to toilets but the children cannot, so they relieve themselves near sewer lines just beside our tent," Rubina says.

The conditions are not better in Kutupalong camp, the largest of about half a dozen camps that dot Cox's Bazar, usually a popular tourist destination due to its long sandy beach.

Ataur Rahman, 42, arrived at the camp three weeks ago with his extended family of 20 relatives, including nine children and seven grandchildren.

The entire clan lives in two huts constructed of polythene sheets and bamboo.

Ataur said half the family had been struck down with diarrhea and pneumonia since arriving at the camp.

"Six of us have had diarrhea and two grandsons have suffered from pneumonia. They are better now but frail. One of my sons was shot in the leg in Burma (Myanmar) and the wound has not healed yet," he added.

Kutuplaong has pure water supplies from dozens of tube wells but there are not enough toilets.

"The toilets are far away, so the children don't go there. Even the older ones are afraid of using the toilets at night. Doctors have warned against diseases and told us to use the toilets and wash with soap, but it's not always affordable," Ataur further added.  

Sanitation and hygiene problems

That health agencies and NGOs are struggling to keep conditions safe and sanitary after 605,000 Rohingya have flooded into makeshift camps in Bangladesh since Aug. 25 should come as no surprise.

A report from the Inter-Sector Coordination Group released Oct. 29. on conditions in the camps found 30 percent of the 4,370 manual pumps are in poor condition and 36 percent of the 24,773 latrines were about to overflow.

"There is continuous new influx of refugees resulting in an increase in population at multiple sites which is overloading existing WASH facilities (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) due to heavy use," the report said.

Doctor Sameer Kumar Howlader, health officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Rohingya children face grave risk of water-borne diseases as well as polio.

"The Bangladesh government, World Health Organization and other non-government groups have vaccinated 150,000 children for polio. Most of the children are malnourished and they are vulnerable to polio," Howlader told ucanews.com.

Misbahuddin Ahmed, resident doctor at a state-run hospital in Ukhiya that covers Kutupalong, said the government is aware of the threat of an epidemic.

"We have already vaccinated 700,000 Rohingya against cholera. They face risks of various water-borne diseases as well as communicable diseases. We have warned Rohingya not to leave the camps, and local people not to mix with them," Ahmed told ucanews.com.

Doctor Edward Pallab Rozario, head of Health Projects at Caritas Bangladesh, fears a disease outbreak at the camps due to overcrowding and unhygienic conditions.

"Back in Myanmar, they had little access to medical services, so they didn't get vaccinations at all. We fear Rohingya are vulnerable to diseases like hepatitis, malaria, dengue and measles," Rozario told ucanews.com.

He said that 37 Rohingya have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who are now receiving treatment in various hospitals. Ashar Alo (Light of Hope), an NGO working with HIV/AIDS patients has been supporting them.

Rozario also warned against another growing threat — sexually transmitted diseases (STD).

"Some of the women have resorted to prostitution for survival. They need money for survival and care little for protection. So, there is a danger of spreading STDs among Rohingya as well local people who frequent them."

Caritas has been offering food and non-food aid to up to 70,000 refugees since last month.

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