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International: Asia – Rohingya diphtheria risk

February 2018

Rohingya refugee camps are facing the possibility of a severe outbreak of diphtheria, medical staff at disaster relief organisation Samaritan’s Purse have warned.

The life-threatening infection can cause difficulty with breathing and is most often airborne. Up to 10 per cent of people who are infected are likely to lose their life, and infection rates in the Bangladesh camps are rising fast.

Last November, the World Health Organisation stated five cases of diphtheria a day were being reported. But, over December, this rocketed to more than 100 on certain days.

According to Samaritan’s Purse, of the suspected cases, 73 per cent of victims are under the age of 15 years and more than 90 per cent of diphtheria-related deaths are children.

Bangladesh’s refugee population has risen rapidly, with nearly 600,000 people entering the country from neighbouring Myanmar. Elizabeth Quelch, part of the charity’s medical team who has been working in the Rohingya camps, stated in January: ‘Approximately 24,000 children have been vaccinated against diphtheria since 12 December. Some 1,077 problematic cases have been recently reported and we are expecting the outbreak to get a lot more severe’.