A joint vaccination campaign against diphtheria and other preventable diseases was launched in Cox's Bazar yesterday for young Rohingya children living in 12 camps and temporary settlements near the Myanmar border.
The Bangladesh government launched the campaign for all refugee children aged between six weeks and six years, drawing on the support of Unicef, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The accelerated immunisation programme will cover nearly 255,000 children in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas, while the government and its health partners continue to increase support for diphtheria treatment and prevention.
"The Bangladesh government will do everything necessary to contain this outbreak," Director General of Health Services Dr Abul Kalam Azad said.
Diphtheria is an infectious respiratory disease caused by a potent toxin produced by certain strains of the Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It spreads through air droplets from coughing or sneezing, and can become an epidemic due to factors including overcrowding, poor hygiene and a lack of immunisation.
Edouard Beigbeder, the Unicef Representative to Bangladesh, said diphtheria usually appears among vulnerable populations who have not received routine vaccinations, such as the Rohingya.
“The outbreak shows a steep rise in cases, an indicator of the extreme vulnerability of children in the Rohingya camps and settlements," he said.
“This calls for immediate action to protect them from this killer disease. Vaccination provides effective prevention.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the WHO Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) recorded 722 probable diphtheria cases in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar between November 12 and December 10. Of these, nine had proved fatal.
Under the joint vaccination campaign launched on Tuesday, the Rohingya children are being administered three types of vaccine: pentavalent vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, Haemophilus Influenzae, and hepatitis B; pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV); and bivalent oral polio vaccine.
“The vaccines will help protect every Rohingya child in these temporary settlements from falling prey to the deadly disease,” WHO Representative to Bangladesh Dr Navaratnasamy Paranietharan said.
"We're moving quickly to control this diphtheria outbreak before it spins out of control. Beyond vaccinations, we're helping health workers to clinically manage suspected cases, trace their contacts, and ensure sufficient supplies of medicines.”
The Serum Institute of India has donated 300,000 doses of pentavalent vaccines for use in the response.
Next week, three rounds of tetanus diphtheria (Td) vaccines will be provided to the Rohingya children, aged seven to 15 years, and 10,000 health and development professionals working in the Rohingya settlements.
A total of 900,000 doses of Td were also set to arrive in Bangladesh yesterday for this purpose.
WHO was also procuring 2,000 doses of diphtheria anti-toxins to treat diphtheria patients. Nearly 345 doses were hand-carried by WHO personnel from Delhi to Cox's Bazar.