BANGKOK (AlertNet) - A diarrhoea outbreak in a camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar killed at least three children early this month, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has said.
The medical charity also warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the water and sanitation situation is not improved soon in the camps, which were set up after sectarian clashes in 2012 between Buddhist Rakhines and stateless Rohingya Muslims. The violence displaced more than 110,000 people in Rakhine State, the vast majority of them Rohingya.
"The outbreak should be taken as a warning. It's directly related to the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation conditions in these camps,” Vickie Hawkins, MSF deputy head of mission in Myanmar, told AlertNet.
Hawkins, who has worked in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Afghanistan, called the sanitation in the camps “the worst” she had seen. “There were faeces everywhere. Even in the dry season that has led to a small diarrhoea outbreak. In the rainy season it could be catastrophic,” she said.
Myanmar’s rainy season usually starts in mid-May and runs through to the end of October.
Threats and intimidation faced by aid agencies, including MSF, are hampering the provision of healthcare to displaced people, Hawkins said.
“It means that medical presence in many camps is not as frequent as it should be, which detracts from the setting up of an effective medical surveillance system to understand the general health status of the (displaced),” she said.
CAMPS VULNERABLE TO FLOODS
The diarrhoea outbreak occurred in Kyein Nyi Pyin camp in Pauktaw Township, where 446 people - around 10 percent of the camp population - were affected, MSF said.
There have been high levels of less-severe diarrhoea in many camps during the crisis. But in Kyein Nyi Pyin, the numbers shot up in February and March, from 17 cases to 123 cases on Mar. 3 and 175 cases on Mar. 4, according to MSF.
The aid agency has investigated a number of deaths but could only verify that the deaths of three children under five were due to diarrhoea. No similarly severe outbreaks have been reported in other camps so far.
The numbers dropped off quickly following a joint response from the health ministry and aid agencies, but there are concerns the situation could worsen when the rainy season starts in mid-May.
In February, aid workers warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis” for over 24,000 people living in camps located in paddy fields, including Kyein Nyi Pyin, that flood during the annual monsoon. If the displaced are not moved in the next few weeks, they could be living in stagnant water, risking water-borne diseases within months.
POOR SANITATION PRE-CONFLICT
Even before the conflict, Rakhine State had one of the worst levels of access to water and sanitation, as well as poor sanitation practices, said Zafrin Chowdhury, spokesperson for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Myanmar.
UNICEF is currently funding the transportation of safe water to the camps through local government and aid agency partners, he told AlertNet.
“It is important to note that both communities and children, in particular, are at risk unless the water and sanitation situation in the camps improves significantly, or the communities are relocated to suitable locations including their places of origin,” Chowdhury added.
MSF’s Hawkins said more aid agencies are required to help scale up the humanitarian response and the Myanmar government should facilitate their deployment.