The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (also known as Doctors Without Borders) said on Thursday that an immediate scale-up of humanitarian aid in Bangladesh is required to prevent a public health disaster following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
According to the United Nations, 422,000 Rohingya people fled to the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh from Rakhine State in Myanmar between August 25 and September 19. The outpouring of refugees began when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group attacked 30 police outposts in Rakhine state, sparking a government crackdown and widespread violence. There are now almost 620,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh.
“Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in an extremely precarious situation, and all the preconditions for a public health disaster are there,” MSF Emergency Coordinator Robert Onus said.
Most of the newly arrived refugees are in makeshift settlements without adequate access to shelter, food, clean water or latrines.
“We are receiving adults every day on the cusp of dying from dehydration,” MSF Emergency Coordinator Kate White said. “That’s very rare among adults, and signals that a public health emergency could be just around the corner.”
“These settlements are essentially rural slums that have been built on the side of the only two-lane road that runs through this part of the district,” Ms. White said. “When you walk through the settlement, you have to wade through streams of dirty water and human faeces.”
Mr. Onus warned that the situation in the camps is “so incredible fragile,” that “one small event could lead to an outbreak that may be the tipping point between a crisis and a catastrophe.”
He added: “We most likely still haven’t seen the full impact of this crisis in terms of health. There is an acute need for a massive humanitarian intervention focusing on food, clean water, shelter, and sanitation, and a solution is needed to reduce the size of these massive, congested camps.”
MSF says that due to a lack of potable water, people are collecting water from paddy fields, puddles, and hand-dug shallow wells which are often contaminated with excreta, and that 487 patients were treated for diarrhoeal diseases at an MSF medical facility between September 6 and 17. The Inter Sector Coordination Group in Cox’s Bazar also warned that there are a high number of diarrhea cases among new arrivals.
There is a high risk of an infectious disease outbreak due to the huge and rapid increase in the population, as well as the low vaccination coverage among the Rohingya community, MSF says.
The NGO called for the immediate launch of comprehensive vaccination campaigns for measles and cholera.
The United Nations Children’s Fund said on Sunday that a campaign was underway to vaccinate 150,000 Rohingya children. UNICEF said it and the World Health Organisation are supporting Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health by supplying measles, rubella and polio vaccines, and monitoring implementation to ensure all children are reached.
Last week, the WHO said it will distribute enough cholera kits for 20,000 people along with 2 million water purification tablets.