Over 40 British doctors, nurses and firefighters from the UKs Emergency Medical Team (EMT) are coming to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to fight a rapid and deadly outbreak of diphtheria.
This is the first deployment of Britain’s EMT since the organisation was certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016.
Over a dozen medical experts will fly out on Dec 28, followed by the rest in the days after, the British High Commission said.
The response comes after the WHO and Bangladesh government called for assistance amid more than 2,000 suspected cases and 22 reported deaths from the airborne virus.
This number is expected to increase significantly over the Christmas period and the camps are not sufficiently staffed or equipped to manage the outbreak, the British High Commission said.
Diphtheria is a fast spreading, extremely deadly bacterial infection. It most often causes infection of the upper respiratory tract. Diphtheria is most commonly spread from person to person through respiratory droplets (coughs and sneezes), or by direct contact with respiratory secretions or infected skin lesions. It has an incubation period of 2-5 days. It causes life-threatening airway obstruction (suffocation) if untreated.
There are a reported 160 new cases every day in the Cox’s Bazar camps, which are currently home to over 650,000 Rohingyas who fled across the border following a military crackdown in Myanmar.
The disease is especially dangerous to children. It causes extreme difficulty breathing, and inflammation of the heart, which can lead to heart failure, problems with the nervous system and fatal paralysis.
Bangladesh has managed to eliminate the disease through vaccination. Children get the vaccine in the first year after birth.
But the new cases in Rohingya camps appear could lead to a wider problem if it spreads to local Bangladeshis. Many new doctors in the country are not familiar with the disease.
The British High Commission said the EMT group will be deployed to Cox’s Bazar for six weeks, where clinicians will work using existing health facilities.
The group includes 36 National Health Service medics, such as doctors, nurses and epidemiologists, who will provide immediate specialist life-saving care to tackle the diphtheria outbreak, as well as around five logistics staff from UK fire and rescue services who will provide expert advice to create the necessary infrastructure for the EMT’s urgent work.
An advance team will travel to Coxs Bazar on Dec 27 to make logistical preparations. Following pre-deployment training, all remaining staff will be deployed from the Dec 28, with the first wave leaving from Manchester Airport.
"This will be an absolutely critical deployment, in a race against time for men, women and children at risk of dying from one of the world’s cruelest infections," International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said.
"I have heard first-hand the harrowing stories of Rohingya families who have escaped persistent persecution, violence and tragedy. In the face of this new horror it is absolutely right that we step up to end their relentless suffering and stop them falling prey to a rampaging, preventable disease that could kill thousands."
Department of Health Minister Steve Brine said the UK has a 'proud tradition' of supporting nations in need.
"Today marks another proud moment in the history of the NHS as selfless clinical staff once again show their skill, commitment and passion for helping people around the world."
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