Categories
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.

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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.

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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.”

Categories
Bangladesh Medical

Diphtheria

On 11th November 2017, in Kutupalong hospital, I diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in the refugee camp. Although I had never seen this illness during my professional career, it was instantly recognisable. Three weeks later, the hospital was seeing a hundred Rohingya patients a day suffering from diphtheria, with a mortality rate of 10%.

In 19th Century Britain, diphtheria was known as “Boulogne Sore Throat” as there was an outbreak across the Channel in France. Queen Victoria’s second daughter and her grandchild died from diphtheria within a week of each other.

The French physician Bretonneau first used the Greek word diphthera meaning “prepared hide or leather” to describe the disease in 1826. It refers to the thick, grey membrane of dead skin which covers the back of the throat in patients suffering from diphtheria. This “pseudomembrane” can obstruct the airway, suffocating the patient. No wonder the disease was known as the “strangler”. An epidemic struck Spain in 1613, “el ano de los garrotillos” (the year of strangulations).

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People can be asymptomatic carriers of non-invasive diphtheria which do no harm. But when a bacteriophage (virus) infects the corynebacterium it stimulates the production of the dangerous toxin. This poison kills cells in the throat but has a more serious, delayed action which damages the heart, kidneys, liver and nervous system.

A Prussian military doctor, Emil von Behring, won the first Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1901 after developing diphtheria anti-toxin in 1890. He repeatedly injected sublethal doses of toxin into a horse. The horse’s immune system neutralised the toxin. Horse serum anti-toxin is still used today to treat diphtheria. However, it is in short supply as there are so few cases of the disease in developed countries. Since mass immunisation against diphtheria was introduced in the UK in 1940, the disease has become extremely rare. The last British fatality was in 1994 when an unimmunised child picked up the infection on a trip to Pakistan.

Diphtheria is part of the WHO childhood immunisation schedule. Unfortunately, many of the Rohingya children who fled from Myanmar last year had never been vaccinated. In the overcrowded conditions in the refugee camp, diphtheria can spread rapidly by droplet (aerosol) transmission. Over 300,000 young people needed immunising – three doses, a month apart – to halt the epidemic.

The outbreak in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh was not an isolated event. Last year there were serious epidemics in Indonesia and war-torn Yemen, with many fatalities.

I have always been a fervent believer in immunisation because I am convinced it prevents mortality and morbidity. Perhaps because it has been so successful at eliminating diseases such as tetanus, measles, rubella, polio and diphtheria, many parents are unaware how deadly these diseases can be and they are frightened about the infinitesimal risk of vaccine side effects. But I have seen what happens when the system for vaccinating children breaks down, resulting in death and misery.