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Bangladesh Medical

Diseases which should never happen

Before today, 11th November 2017, the only person I knew who had diphtheria was my Aunty June, who had contracted the disease in 1935.¹

“Have you seen the woman with the white throat?” Dr Nadim asked me.

P1320703At first, I didn’t click. What did he mean by a white throat? Was he describing vitiligo on the front of her neck? It was a shock when I saw the patient. There was a thick, greyish membrane on the right side of the back of her pharynx, inside the mouth. Her neck was diffusely swollen, known in the trade as a “bull neck”. She looked uncomfortable and couldn’t swallow without pain. It was just like it is described in textbooks – but diphtheria is so rare nowadays that it only merits a brief entry in the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. There is nothing else which causes this appearance. (See my previous blog post about diphtheria for more information)


In our other isolation room, we have three children with tetanus. Two have neonatal tetanus, a disease which has been virtually eliminated from the world by vaccinating women in the antenatal period. I have seen seven Rohingya patients suffering from tetanus in the two months I have been working here in Kutupalong.


Some diseases are so feared that we may not speak their name. Cholera has become “severe acute watery diarrhoea”. Poliomyelitis is “acute flaccid paralysis”. The Bangladesh Health Ministry has organised vaccination campaigns in the refugee camp to prevent both these diseases, but not before one boy contracted “acute flaccid paralysis” which could have been wild-type polio. We admitted him to the ward for observation, but his symptoms did not progress, and we discharged him after a week.


The only letter I have ever written to The Times newspaper was to criticise Nigella Lawson’s view on measles vaccination, which she felt was too risky given that measles was not “a serious disease”. I wrote that measles could be lethal. I recall admitting twenty children suffering from measles to a hospital ward on a single day in 1980 in Southern Sudan; by the next morning, only twelve were still alive. Nigella didn’t reply.

Here we have a measles isolation tent. Six months ago, Cyclone Mora blew the tent onto the roof of the hospital laboratory. It was retrieved and fixed more securely to the ground. When I visited the tent last month, it was hotter than Hades.

The mothers were complaining that there were no fans in this furnace of a ward. The children looked irritable and ill, lying on mats on the floor. I checked them for dangerous complications of measles and we said we would get one of the logisticians to bring a power cable into the tent to run a standing fan.

The following day, the mothers were delighted at the cooling breeze from the fan. I was less than delighted with the increase in numbers of ill children.

P1320829
The waiting area where we assess children with measles to determine whether they are so unwell that they need admission to the tent. Note the logo on the tee shirt of the man wearing a blue checked lunghi.

 

A week later, the mothers were angry again. The fan had stopped running. I saw that the plug had come out of the socket, perhaps when moving the fan to make room for another mattress. I moved the fan closer and replaced the plug. The fan remained dead. The mothers looked downhearted.

I couldn’t give up and lose face, so I tried twiddling the switch governing the speed of the fan. Still no good. Then I tried a bit of “percussive therapy” – I bashed it and the fan spun into life. A cheer went up (mainly from me). Everyone was happy. The spotty children were all doing extremely well and would soon be discharged.

The logistics team have now fixed up a massive awning over the top of the tent to provide some insulation from the hot sun. The patients find it much more bearable now.

P1320769
Measles tent with protective bamboo roof/shade 

 

The misery caused by all these diseases could have been prevented by routine immunisation. This has been so successful that many parents (like Nigella) in developed countries have become rather blasé about having their children protected. Sadly, many Rohingya in Myanmar have not had the luxury of that choice; they had no access to vaccination. The consequences of this are plain to see in the hospital.

 

 

¹ My father and his siblings were quarantined at home, issued with a bottle of “Thymo-Cresol” disinfectant and not allowed to go to school. Crucially, this impacted on his performance in the grammar school entry examination, the Eleven Plus. He said,” With this period of isolation, all my dreams of becoming Prime Minister came to an end.”

By Dr Alfred Prunesquallor

Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.

2 replies on “Diseases which should never happen”

First off I would like to say wonderful blog!
I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
I have had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15
minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints?
Appreciate it!

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Glad to hear that you liked the blog. I try to see the humour and humanity in everyday life. I take notes, on my phone or scraps of paper of events which have caught my attention. These notes can come together to make a theme on a particular topic. I rarely write immediately after an event. It can be too raw. If I do write, I’ll schedule the post for a few days or weeks ahead. I can then read through and edit at leisure when I have had time to think more about the issues raised and how best to describe them.
I like to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence. I try to have photos to illustrate and keep the reader interested. I try to write short sentences in short paragraphs. I hope this helps. Good luck with your blog, Ian

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