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Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Diphtheria continues to spread at an alarming rate

11 Dec 2017
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A young girl carries a sick baby to a Army Medical Post in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Makeshift Settlement and Expansion Site. Credit: OCHA/Anthony Burke

To date, there are nearly 860,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar – of whom 646,000 have arrived since 25 August. Not only has the pace of new arrivals since 25 August made this the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world, the concentration of refugees in Cox’s Bazar is now amongst the densest in the world.

Refugees have arrived traumatized and destitute, and are mostly living in makeshift settlements without adequate infrastructure or services. More than half of them (55 per cent) are living in a single site that merges several pre-existing settlements and new land allocated by the Government.

Aid agencies have been working hard to rapidly scale up life-saving aid, but more assistance is desperately needed, and partners urgently require funding to expand operations in line with rapidly intensifying needs. To date, although donors pledged $360 million for the Rohingya crisis response at a conference in October, the Response Plan remains 65 percent underfunded.

In a context where the refugee population is already extremely vulnerable to disease outbreaks primarily due to low vaccination coverage in Rakhine State and overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions in refugee sites in Bangladesh, diphtheria is rapidly spreading in camps in Cox's Bazar. As of 11 December, some 550 suspected cases and nine fatalities had been reported. A specialized team from WHO - to work with the Ministry of Health - is in the country to spearhead the response to the significant increase in Diphtheria cases. A vaccine campaign will begin tomorrow, 12 December, with over 900,000 doses of vaccine expected to arrive in Cox’s Bazar in the next few days. Agencies have committed to supporting efforts to carry out contact tracing, communicating with communities and other efforts curb the spread of diphtheria.

Decongesting the sites and settlements is an urgent priority. Taken as a whole, the Kutupalong Extension site is one of the largest and most dense refugee camps in the world. Overcrowding and lack of space in all settlements is a major concern. Many sites have no access to basic services, and at the others the existing infrastructure is under immense strain. Without additional land and adequate funding, services to scale cannot be delivered appropriately.