By Matthew Carter, IFRC
Three-year-old Mohammed Sofit lies on the cold bare earth inside his family home.
For the past 24 hours he has been suffering from chicken pox – an all too familiar ailment in the sprawling Kutapalong camp, built into steep hillsides close to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
While the common childhood illness is generally low risk, chronic overcrowding in the camps near Cox’s Bazar mean the disease is able to spread rapidly among the population.
With over 34,500 cases of the disease reported since December, the worry is that this illness risks compounding many other vulnerabilities of the people who live here.
“I have seen my children suffering”
Fatema Khatun, a mother of four, lives nearby in her small shelter in the Kutapalong mega-camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Among her four children, three are already affected by the recent outbreak of chicken pox.
Fatema’s youngest daughter, one-year-old Nusrat has been suffering from chicken pox for five days. Two of her other children have had the tell-tale itching for two days.
“I wasn’t much worried at the beginning,” said Fatema. “Everyone in my neighborhood was saying it will go away, but I have seen my children suffering for the past few days. That’s when I came here, and it takes an hour of walk to get here.”
Fatema visited one of a handful of Red Cross clinics in the area. They treat a wide variety of health conditions among the people displaced by violence in Rahkine, Myanmar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent chicken pox outbreak is spreading fast in the densely populated settlements in Cox’s Bazar. The nature of the disease, as any parent knows, is that it is very contagious. But it is also particularly miserable condition in the hot, stuffy tents that perch precariously on these hillsides.
“Stay clean and washed”
Abdus Sattar lives in a nearby area of the mega-camp. Two of Abdus’ five children have chicken pox.
Abdus was asked to come to the clinic close to his home on the advice of a Red Cross and Red Crescent community mobilizer. These volunteers, recruited from the camp, go door-to-door to ensure people are getting appropriate and timely information. At present, they are spending a lot of time speaking to families about chicken pox.
“After talking to the doctor, I came to know about the dos and don’ts during this period,” said Abdus. “My children should not scratch the body. We should cut the nails short, stay inside the mosquito net, drink plenty of water and stay clean and washed.”
It has been a month since the beginning of the chicken pox outbreak, and still patients come with a fever, a cough, itching, and scabs. In severe cases these scabs can become infected.
Dr. Faisal from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society is working in the clinic that saw Abdus. “This disease is a contagious kind,” he said. “We are advising patients to stay in their homes. Non-affected family members should come to the health center to receive advice and medicine.”
Health messages on the wireless
Noor Mohammad usually attends a community safe space run by the Red Cross and Red Crescent to weave fishing nets with his friends. This week the 65-year-old has instead listened to a radio programme, broadcast to community groups on mobile speakers via USB, about the chicken pox outbreak.
“It’s been two days since one of my grandsons has been affected by chicken pox,” said Noor. “Today I have listened to the radio show and got to know what should be done. I also learned that the nails must be trimmed, the person must be kept clean and needs to have a shower once a day. I will go home today and tell my daughter to do the necessary things.”
Caring for a newborn
Back in the home of Mohammed Sofit, his mother Saynuwara sits quietly by his side.
“My husband is working,” she said stoically. “So we have not had time to take him to the clinic.”
Beside young Mohammed lies her young daughter Tamana. She is just 16 days old. Checking the temperature of her son, Saynuwara said:
“I feel a pain in my stomach because we cannot go home. I worry about my children’s future – there is no education here.”
With support from IFRC and sister National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has been tackling the chicken pox outbreak from the very first day it began. To date, we have provided health care to 1,451 people suffering from the disease at six health facilities in the mega camp. 191 volunteers continue to go door-to-door of 13,370 households and disseminate key messages to 66,850 community members to ensure that people receive correct medical advice for this and other health conditions.