A large number of the Rohingya who have entered Bangladesh since late August, and thousands of others who continue to cross the border, are sick – many suffering from diseases like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Polio.
About 40% of these new refugees, officially 582,000 so far, are staying in cramped camps while others are living under the open sky or in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. A scarcity of safe water and sanitation facilities has triggered fears among health experts that the living conditions could lead to outbreaks of diseases.
An outbreak will be catastrophic – both for the refugees and their host communities.
The Rohingya have faced health-related discrimination in Myanmar for decades, where they are denied citizenship and basic rights. A large section of the community had already been suffering from various diseases before they came to Bangladesh because of malnutrition, unhealthy living conditions and a lack of access to healthcare.
Bangladeshi health experts say they have identified four major diseases – Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Polio and Aids – in the new batch of refugees.
Experts say the diseases will spread if the Rohingya are not kept in a particular area. They warn that germs from coughs, flux, used injections, human filth, garbage and water and air pollution would spread quickly if the living conditions are not improved.
Bangladesh could see the outbreak of cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and measles if the refugees are not immediately treated. Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be the worst affected areas during such events, health experts say.
Fifteen percent of the new arrivals are suffering from diarrhoea, government data show. The World Health Organisation, in a recent report, warned that there could be an outbreak of water-borne and infectious diseases among the Rohingya that would also affect the locals.
The government is providing healthcare services to the Rohingya. Under the supervision of Ministry of Health, the Director General of Health Service (DGHS) is working with the Armed Forces Division, UN bodies, and international and local NGOs to deliver health services in a coordinated and comprehensive manner.
On its website, the DGHS said 74 static health centers – 25 run by government, 10 by army and 39 by NGOs – were providing health facilities to the refugees. Forty-three mobile medical teams and 231 vaccination teams are working there.
Gawher Nayeem Wahra, a teacher at Dhaka University’s Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, noted that Myanmar did not have an immunisation programme for the Rohingya.
He warned that as a result, the latest influx include many Rohingya suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, and polio.
“The diseases will spread if they get scattered across the country. It is a big public health issue,” he said. “Eventually, the refugees will be needed to be shifted to Ukhiya and Teknaf where clean water is not easily available.”
The government, with the assistance of local and foreign health service providers, is trying to vaccinate the Rohingya but logistical problems mean a large number of the refugees have been left untreated.
The infected refugees - who are being treated at hospitals in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar - also pose a threat to other patients as some of them are suffering from infectious diseases. Among them, government officials say they have identified 51 HIV positive Rohingya patients.
Cox’s Bazar Civil Surgeon Dr Mohammad Abdus Salam said 682,000 refugees had been given cholera vaccinations by the government while various local and international organisations have vaccinated another 175,000 Rohingya.
Salam told the Dhaka Tribune on Thursday that they had detected 850 Hepatitis patients and about 50 measles-affected Rohingya, who are now being treated.
“The Rohingya are suffering from water-borne diseases,” he said. “We found that about 50,000 are infected by flu-type germs while about 15,000 are suffering from skin diseases. About 10,000 were treated for various injuries.”
Chittagong Medical College Hospital’s Dr Dev Pratim Barua said: “Rohingyas are suffering from various infectious diseases that may spread among other refugees and locals if we fail to keep them in a special zone under proper monitoring.”
His colleague Dr Pranab Kumar Chowdhury warned that Bangladesh would have to pay the price if the sick refugees were not kept under proper surveillance. “As 90% Rohingya are illiterate and unaware about health concerns, there is a huge risk that infectious diseases would spread,” he said.
CMCH Director Brig Gen Jalal Uddin Ahmad said: “We opened a separate ward for the Rohingya at the hospital’s outdoor section on October 1 to prevent spread of diseases.”
Civil Surgeon Salam said they had taken similar initiatives at Cox’s Bazar Sadar Hospital.
Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Ali Hossain said: “We have kept the Rohingya refugees under constant surveillance and are monitoring their movements.”