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 5,82,000 so far, are staying in cramped camps while others are living under open sky or in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. Scarcity of water and sanitation has left health experts fearing outbreak 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 was already suffering from various diseases before they came to Bangladesh because of malnutrition, unhealthy living conditions and 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 restricted in a particular area and their living conditions improved quickly.

Bangladesh could see the outbreak of cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and measles if the refugees are not treated right away. Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be the worst affected areas, health experts say.

At least 15% of the new arrivals are suffering from diarrhoea, according to the government. 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 the Ministry of Health, the Director General of Health Service 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 Director General of Health Service says 74 static health centers – 25 run by government, 10 by the army and 39 by NGOs – are now providing health facilities to the refugees. Forty three mobile medical teams and 231 vaccination teams are working there as well.

Logistical challenge

Gawher Nayeem Wahra, who teaches at Dhaka University’s Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, noted that Myanmar did not have an immunisation programme for the Rohingya. “As a result, the latest influx include many Rohingya suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, and polio,” he said. “The diseases will spread if they get scattered across the country. It is a big public health issue.”

The government, with the assistance of local and foreign health service providers, is trying to ensure vaccination for the Rohingya to prevent such a calamity but logistics deficiency means a large number of the refugees has been left untreated.

Also, the infected refugees, who are being treated at hospitals in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, pose threat to other patients as some of them are suffering from infectious diseases.

Cox’s Bazar civil surgeon Mohammad Abdus Salam said 6,82,000 refugees have been given cholera vaccination by the government while local and international organisations vaccinated another 1,75,000 Rohingya.

Salam said they have so far detected 850 patients with hepatitis and about 50 with measles. “They are being treated,” he added. “The Rohingya are suffering from water-borne diseases. We found that about 50,000 Rohingya are infected by flu-type germs while about 15,000 are suffering from skin diseases. About 10,000 have been treated for various injuries.”

Government officials say they have identified 51 Rohingya with HIV so far.

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 are not kept under proper surveillance. “As 90% Rohingyas are illiterate and unaware about health concerns, there is a huge risk that infectious diseases would spread,” he said.

The hospital’s 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.”

Salam said they had taken similar steps 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.”

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.