Deadly Diarrheal Outbreak Afflicts Rohingya Residents on Bangladesh Island, Refugees Say

Lack of knowledge about hygiene may be at fault, a district health officer says.
Deadly Diarrheal Outbreak Afflicts Rohingya Residents on Bangladesh Island, Refugees Say Rohingya women wait in line with their children at an NGO-run health center on Bhashan Char Island, Bangladesh, June 13, 2021.

At least four Rohingya children and an adult died of diarrhea and thousands more have been afflicted in the last two weeks on a Bangladeshi island, refugees said on Thursday about the first outbreak of any disease at the site, which has been criticized for lacking adequate health facilities.

Dr. Masum Iftekhar, the chief health officer in Noakhali – a district that encompasses Bhashan Char Island where nearly 19,000 Rohingya refugees are confined – said he could confirm that one Rohingya died of diarrhea in a hospital but the cause of death of the other four had not yet been determined.

Iftekhar said about 1,000 Rohingya contracted diarrhea, while Mohammad Jobayer, a Rohingya leader living in Bhashan Char, said about 3,000 people there have suffered from it.

“Five people, including four children, have died,” Jobayer told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, by telephone.

“During the last two weeks, 2,000 to 3,000 people in Bhashan Char had diarrhea. Many people have been undergoing treatment at hospitals.”

Iftekhar said about 600 Rohingya were admitted to a hospital suffering from diarrhea during the past two weeks.

“Only one Rohingya died of diarrhea at a hospital. We have yet to ascertain whether diarrhea killed the other four persons,” he told BenarNews.

Seventeen diarrhea patients were admitted to Bhashan Char’s hospital in the previous 24 hours, he said on Thursday.

“The media reports suggesting that up to 5,000 Rohingya in Bhashan Char had diarrhea during the last 15 days are not true. At best, 1,000 Rohingya took diarrhea treatment,” Iftekhar said.

“The diarrhea situation in Bhashan Char is under control.”

Meanwhile, according to another refugee, many Rohingya who contracted diarrhea could not get treatment.

“Many of the victims died before being taken to a hospital,” Mohammad Nurul Islam told BenarNews. “Many of them have been taking treatment at houses because the hospitals cannot accommodate them.”

Bhashan Char has a 20-bed government hospital while NGOs operate six health centers there, Mohammad Atiqul Mamun, the island representative of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner’s office, told BenarNews.

Since December 2020, Bangladesh’s government has moved close to 19,000 Rohingya to the island and away from camps in mainland Cox’s Bazar district, where some 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are sheltering.

The government, which built facilities and infrastructure on the Bay of Bengal island to accommodate a refugee population in order to ease crowding in the mainland camps, maintains that the Rohingya agreed to relocate off-shore and were not compelled to move.

Cause not yet identified

Iftekhar, the district health officer, could not identify the cause of the outbreak on Bhashan Char but said it could be because of a lack of knowledge about hygiene.

“We have adopted the necessary measures to contain the situation. We have provided the Rohingya all possible assistance – adequate quantity of water purifying tablets and oral saline,” he said.

“A campaign to create awareness about diarrhea among the Rohingya is under way.”

Public health expert Mahbubur Rahman, a doctor based in Dhaka, said officials must test the water on Bhashan Char.

“The first consideration, is whether there is any problem with the source of water. We need to examine the water the Rohingya use for cooking and observe if they use soap after using the toilet,” Rahman told BenarNews

“The authorities need to launch big awareness campaigns about personal health and hygiene among the Rohingya. A multimedia content in their language would help.”

Bangladesh sees an uptick in diarrhea infections every year starting in the summer, which begins in mid-April, and running into the monsoon season, which begins in June.

Outbreaks of diarrhea have been reported in Noakhali district outside Bhashan Char since April where 21 people have died, Iftekhar said.

Similar outbreaks have been reported in Barishal and Bhola districts in south-central Bangladesh since April, killing 22 people so far, according to official estimates.

In June, at least 11 people died of diarrhea in Bandarban district, which borders Myanmar and also hosts Rohingya camps.

Between 2000 and 2016, Bangladesh reduced diarrhea deaths of children 5 and younger from 38,877 to 7,062, according to The Borgen Project, an American anti-poverty NGO.

On March 10, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics told reporters that diarrhea killed 7,213 people in 2019 and 7,201 in 2020.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.


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