Bangladesh diphtheria relief effort

A doctor and nurse from Guy’s and St Thomas’ are helping to save thousands of people in Bangladesh who are at risk from a deadly outbreak of diphtheria.

More than 40 British doctors, nurses and firefighters from the UK’s Emergency Medical Team are in Cox’s Bazar – a town on the south-east coast of Bangladesh – to treat the disease.

Dr Holly Gettings, consultant in emergency medicine, and Chrissy Alcock, senior sister, work in the Emergency Department at Guy’s and St Thomas’ and flew out with Britain’s Emergency Medical Team in December.

The UK’s latest response follows a formal request for assistance from the World Health Organisation and the Government of Bangladesh after more than 2,000 suspected cases and 22 reported deaths from the airborne virus.

Diphtheria is a fast-spreading, extremely deadly infection, and there are a reported 160 new cases every day in Cox’s Bazar, which is home to more than 600,000 Rohingya people.

Dr Gettings, from Streatham, said: “The Trust has been tremendously supportive in deploying staff for this humanitarian emergency. Conditions in the refugee camp are very difficult. There is severe overcrowding and access to clean water and sanitation is poor. These factors mean that diseases spread quickly, especially in a population with poor vaccination coverage, and we are seeing lots of preventable diseases.”

St Thomas’ Hospital pre-planned for Dr Gettings and Chrissy’s deployment by ensuring their roles are covered while they are away. The deployment is funded from the Department for International Development Bangladesh humanitarian budget.

Dr Gettings added: “In the last week the team has opened three diphtheria treatment centres and we are working with local staff to train them to be able to care for the diphtheria patients. Most of the cases are in children but with early antibiotics, and treatment with an antitoxin, serious complications can be avoided and lives saved.”

The UK’s Emergency Medical Team is a collaboration between the Department for International Development, the NHS, Public Health England, UK Med – a register of NHS volunteers ready to
deploy to emergencies, Handicap International and the UK Fire and Rescue Service.

Chrissy, from Camden, said: “Being here has given me just a glimpse of what every day life is like for these refugees who have fled violence in Myanmar and arrive to these desperate conditions.

“You cannot see the borders of the camp. It is a massive sea of makeshift tents covering the nearby hills.

“Our aim is that by improving the care for patients with diphtheria we can help in a small way to improve the lives of these people who have suffered so much.”

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