Save the Children health workers are on high alert for cases of diphtheria, which has so far claimed the lives of at least 15 Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh.
Maria Tsolka from Save the Children's Emergency Health Unit is the leading health specialist working on the Rohingya crisis. Based in the southern Bangladeshi district of Cox's Bazar, she said: “It will be a challenging December for the humanitarian community here that is rallying to control the diphtheria outbreak."
“The entire humanitarian community is on alert. 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 said.
Save the Children runs a network of seven, soon to be nine, community health posts in the Rohingya camps. Staffed by experienced doctors and nurses, they see between 50 and 100 people a day 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.
Tsolka said: “Diphtheria is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, like coughing and sneezing. Poor hand hygiene contributes to transmission too. It can be fatal in more than 10% of cases but this can increase in overcrowded camps with limited access to health services.”
In response to the health emergency, the aid agency has commenced the roll out of a home visit programme to check on the families and close contacts of diphtheria patients.
The aim is to provide them with a seven-day course of oral antibiotics and to contain the transmission of diphtheria. Health staff will immediately refer any suspected cases of diphtheria for hospital care and treatment to an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) dedicated facility.
This week, Save the Children will commence the roll out of planned child vaccination programmes through its health posts in the camps. This includes vaccination against diphtheria among other diseases. Save the Children will also vaccinate almost 1,400 aid workers and volunteers currently working in different programmes. The vaccine will be provided by the Bangladesh Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organization and Unicef.
Tsolka added: "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.”
In the Rohingya camps the vaccination of children below the age of six started on December 12. The mass vaccination campaign for kids aged 7-15 will start on December 17. This will be done at dedicated vaccinations points throughout the camps.
Save the Children Bangladesh Country Director Mark Pierce said issues concerning water and sanitation must be urgently addressed, and that mass vaccination campaigns as well as routine immunization programmes must be carried out among the camp population.
Currently MSF is the only organization in Cox’s Bazar that can administer treatment for these patients, while others including Save the Children are gearing up to support swift identification of suspected cases and diagnoses to attempt to contain the spread of the disease.