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First violence, then disease -- a long road ahead for Rohingya refugees

by Dr. Bruce Murray | Oct 25, 2017

For the more than 540,000 Rohingya refugees who have escaped violence in Myanmar to relative safety in Bangladesh, there's a long road ahead. The refugee camp is a fertile breeding ground for deadly respiratory infections and diarrheal diseases.

But doctors and nurses with Medical Teams International are working in Kutupalong Refugee Settlement, the fastest growing settlement in the world, to deliver health care to thousands of refugees.

The following dispatch comes from Dr. Bruce Murray, who's been in Bangladesh for the past three weeks.

As the senior physician for Medical Teams International at the Kutupalong Settlement in Bangladesh, I was called to the pediatric room of the 20-bed diarrhea management unit to see a tiny new patient.

Bangladesh, -25 Rebecca Duskin-Bruce Murray at DMC, 2017
Nurse Becca and Dr. Murray treat a tiny patient at Medical Teams' Diarrhea Management Unit at the Kutupalong Settlement in Bangladesh.

Brought by his crying grandmother, the boy appeared to be about 12-15 months old. He had a fever and watery diarrhea. He appeared dehydrated, was hot to the touch and listless. A Bangladeshi paramedical student carefully laid him on the bed, while I began my examination. The sobbing was still evident behind me as Becca attended to the grandmother and tried to console her. The grandmother was afraid the boy was going to die.

Our first priority was the medical care that the child needed, hooking him to an IV to supply fluids.

We were working to save the boy's life. Acute diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children at this settlement. In those extreme cases it causes organ failure and sepsis. Children who are malnourished are particularly vulnerable. The very hot and humid tropical conditions only add to the risk.

Bangladesh, breeding ground for disease - 15, 2017
In hot and humid conditions, with a lack of sanitation, the settlement is a breeding ground for diseases.

Once the IV was running, I turned to see how the grandmother was doing. She was hugging Becca tightly. Through our translator, the woman told her story:

She and the baby had crossed over the border from Myanmar just four days ago. It had been a very difficult journey, as they had to cross mountains to get to the river on the border to cross. Her heart was heavy because armed men had attacked their village. They had separated the men from the women and children and proceeded to decapitate the men in front of the other family members.

Her son, the father of the young boy I was treating, was included in the slaughter. 

She did not know the fate of the child’s mother but assumed she had been assaulted and killed. She said she couldn’t take the pain and that was why it was so important that this child lived. None of us had dry eyes at that point. 

The woman continued to cry as she held tightly to Becca, releasing some of the pain. The crying eventually ceased and she seemed to relax a bit. Within four hours, the child had received enough IV fluids to appear brighter and more alert. He could even sip on some rehydration solution.

The grandmother, who was likely in her 60s, could see the child was responding and her crying gradually turned to tears of joy. She cradled the child and expressed that she was so glad that she'd brought him for treatment. We learned later she thought there were other relatives in the camp, and she would make efforts to locate them.

After 24 hours, the boy looked much better and was able to leave the unit. Stories of atrocities resonate throughout the settlement. We were able to help this child, but this woman's pain will carry on.

Learn more about Rohingya refugees, their plight and what you can do to help. Consider making a donation today. You can have an immediate impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people. You can give them one of the most powerful gifts: compassionate health care.