News / Africa

Refugee Camps Spread Life-Threatening Diseases

Vidushi Sinha
Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa are living in sub-standard conditions. This according to United Nations relief agencies, who report that serious food and water problems are turning many of these camps into breeding grounds for a range of life-threatening diseases. Health officials say outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and acute jaundice - coupled with widespread malnutrition - are threatening the lives of many who thought they would be safe when they fled to the camps.  

At a crowded camp in South Sudan, where thousands have come to escape the region's military conflict, officials report that an outbreak of Hepatitis E - a viral infection transmitted by contaminated food and water - is posing a grave challenge to camp residents.

Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations' Refugee Agency [UNHCR], talks about the proliferation of various diseases.

"Hepatitis E hits young people between the ages of 15 and 40 hardest. In the three camps where we see refugees with acute jaundice syndrome, more than half are between 20 and 39,” said Edwards.

Prevention is crucial

Many camps in African countries, such as South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Libya, Nigeria, and others, have reported severe cholera outbreaks. In the case of cholera or jaundice, officials say containment is very difficult. They believe the best approach to deal with these infections is to prevent them.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert, said cholera often threatens people living in extreme conditions - whether those conditions result from political or natural disasters.
“The vibrio cholerae bacillus produces a toxin which is unlike lot of other bacteria, and this toxin has the ability to poison cells in such a way that you can no longer absorb water from your gastrointestinal tract and so you can start secreting massive volumes of water and so you can become just a shriveled, desiccated individual in just a few hours after the infection,” he said.

Hotez said cholera can be prevented with proper hygiene and sanitation. But once there is an onset of diarrheal symptoms, he said, oral rehydration is key to saving lives.

Focusing on children

UNICEF estimates that nearly 400,000 African children under five will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year. These weakened children are more vulnerable to cholera and a host of other diseases.

Pillar Bauza is with the U.N. refugee agency and she is working with children in refugee camps across Africa.

"We have high rates of mortality, above the emergency threshold plus high rates of malnutrition,” she said.

Along with medical treatment, UNICEF-supported clinics in many camps are distributing water purification tablets, and teaching displaced families how to stay healthy.

Refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border also have recently reported cases of cholera and malaria. Experts say these infections - along with measles, meningitis and a host of other bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases - all have the potential to become deadly epidemics in crowded camps, where poor sanitary conditions are commonplace, and daily meals and safe drinking water can be hard to come by.

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