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Disease Outbreaks Plague Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh


Rohingya refugee Yasin Arfat, 6, who suffers from diphtheria, lays on a bed at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH — At Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, unclean water, cramped living quarters and squalid conditions create a prime environment for outbreaks of preventable diseases among the estimated 650,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled strife in neighboring Myanmar.


While 900,000 doses of oral cholera vaccine already have been delivered by more than 200 mobile vaccination teams, another contagious bacterial infection, diphtheria, has emerged.


"Diphtheria is a vaccine preventable disease. It's an illustration of how the Rohingya population that are living in the makeshift settlements here had very little access to health care in their place of origin in Myanmar," said Kate Nolan, emergency coordinator with international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.


Diphtheria often causes the buildup of a sticky grey-white membrane in the throat or nose. The infection causes airway obstruction and damage to the heart and nervous system. The fatality rate increases without the diphtheria antitoxin.


Rohingya refugees, who suffer from diphtheria, are treated at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Dec. 18, 2017.

"This is 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," said Dr. Navaratnasamy Paranietharan, the World Health Organization representative to Bangladesh.


Myanmar's health sector is rated among the worst in the world, particularly in the ethnic regions where conflict and poverty have delayed medical development.


The Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar's northern Rakhine state after insurgents attacked security forces in late August, prompting a military crackdown that has since been described as ethnic cleansing.


'Appalling' health care