Roughly 900,000 doses of an oral cholera vaccine from the global stockpile will be sent to Bangladesh to prevent the spread of cholera among Rohingya refugees and the local population in Cox’s Bazar, the World Health Organisation said on Friday.
The government of Bangladesh requested the vaccine from the International Coordinating Group on Vaccine Provision on Wednesday, and the approval was granted in 24 hours through the coordinating mechanism that includes WHO, UNICEF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and the International Federation of the Red Cross.
ICG partners – with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – will deliver the vaccine within two weeks, and a free immunization campaign is due to start in October.
Dr. Abul Kalam Azad, Director General of Health Services at the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said the vaccination campaign is a precautionary step to avoid a preventable cholera outbreak.
“We are doing everything we can to prevent an outbreak, including pre-positioning supplies, implementing disease surveillance and monitoring water quality,” said Dr. Navaratnasamy Paranietharan, the WHO Representative in Bangladesh. “A vaccination campaign will help to keep this vulnerable population safe from cholera.”
Many refugees drinking contaminated water
IOM, the UN Migration Agency and its partner agencies are struggling to provide clean water and sanitation for the people in Cox’s Bazar, the agency said in a Friday statement.
Tens of thousands of new arrivals are still living in the open with little or no shelter, food or access to healthcare, according to the IOM. Recent heavy rain has flooded makeshift campsites and left pools of water which are contaminated with feces. These pools are the only accessible source of water for many refugees, making the threat of waterborne diseases like cholera a real possibility.
The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which coordinates the emergency response, says that approximately 59 million liters of safe water are needed every day to meet basic needs. Since August 25, only 1.5 million liters of clean water a day has been provided to the refugee camps, makeshift settlements and other sites.
Diarrheal diseases on the rise
The International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned on Friday that clinics in Cox’s Bazar are treating an increasing number of people with acute watery diarrhea, raising concerns about a possible outbreak of disease.
“Our mobile clinics are treating more people, especially children, who are very sick from diarrhoeal diseases which are a direct result of the terrible sanitation conditions in the makeshift camps,” Mozharul Huq, Secretary General of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, said. “We are on the cusp of a serious health outbreak.”
The IFRC deputy regional director, Martin Faller, said hundreds of people are sharing one toilet in some camps. “The conditions for an outbreak of disease are all present – we have to act now and we have to act at scale,” he added.
501,000 refugees have crossed border, UNHCR says
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that latest estimate of Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 has crossed the half million mark, reaching 501,000 on Thursday.
UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said the agency is now distributing to Rohingya refugees plastic sheeting and other essential relief items like pots and pans, jerry cans, plastic mats and solar lamps at the entrances to settlements in an effort to cut the time people have to spend in the open.
The agency’s partner organisations in the region are scouting crossing points on the border with Myanmar so that essential items can be given to refugees as soon as they enter Bangladesh.
“This will minimize the time that refugees – already traumatized by the events that forced them to flee and by their harrowing journeys – will have to spend out in the open, and should cut down illness, malnutrition and decrease the threat of outbreak of contagious diseases,” Mahecic said, adding that giving the refugees the ability to look after themselves is “an important first step on the road to healing.”
UNHCR nutrition experts estimate that 18 percent of the new arrivals are suffering from acute malnutrition, and that this could soon rise to one in four if no action is taken soon.
Save the Children warns of “potentially catastrophic” outbreak
Save the Children warned on Thursday that a catastrophic outbreak of disease that could spread rapidly through the crowded camps was a real possibility, and called for a rapid scale up of basic services.
“Right now we’re seeing the absolute perfect breeding ground for a major health crisis,” the Director of Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit, Dr. Unni Krishnan said “There are tens of thousands of people still sleeping out in the open or under makeshift shelters, there is dirty, contaminated water everywhere, and poor nutrition and hygiene levels.”
“Any outbreak of disease in these fragile conditions, where people are staying in cramped spaces close to one another, could spread quickly and would be potentially catastrophic,” Krishnan added.
According to IOM and government figures, more than 4,500 Rohingya have already been treated for diarrhea and many others for dehydration, and more than 14,000 children under the age of 5 have severe acute malnutrition, according to the ICSG. Malnourished children are at least six times more likely to die from diarrheal disease like cholera.