Preventable diseases spread as Shan State IDPs are denied access to primary health care

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Nearly half of the residents in a Kesi Township camp for internally displaced people have reported complaints of respiratory problems, fever, chronic diarrhea and skin rashes throughout November, according to volunteers working in the area.

Wan Wa, home to over 1,000 of central Shan State’s 10,000 IDPs, sits on the Nam Wa, a small stream for which it is named. Locals worry that this primary water source is now contaminated and causing widespread illnesses among children and the elderly in the camp. By November 27, 419 of its residents had complained of health problems.

A young boy cooks over a fire in Wan Wa IDP camp in Shan State’s Kesi Township, where over 400 children and elderly people have reported health problems. (Photo: Shan Human Rights Foundation)
A young boy cooks over a fire in Wan Wa IDP camp in Shan State’s Kesi Township, where over 400 children and elderly people have reported health problems. (Photo: Shan Human Rights Foundation)

“They drink water upstream in the Nam Wa, and they bathe downstream,” said Sai Hin Hseng, a volunteer in the camp, of the IDPs’ water use. He suspects insufficient sanitation might be partly to blame, noting that there are “not enough” toilets to accommodate 1,000 people.

“The result [of these conditions] can only be a health disaster,” said Dr. Vit Suwanvanichkij, MPH/MD, with the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to malaria and dengue—illnesses common in Burma—Dr. Suwanvanichkij told SHAN on Monday that IDPs are at risk for malnutrition, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases including cholera, as well as labor complications for women who must deliver babies in the conflict zone.

There are currently six medics working in the Wan Wa IDP camp with limited resources; volunteers said that no doctors have been able to visit the area.

According to The Long Road to Recovery, a 2015 comprehensive report on community-based health care in ethnic regions of Burma, 70 percent of people in these areas relied on local medics—rather than government services—to meet their basic needs.

But Sai Hin Hseng feels that “now, a doctor is necessary.”

Of the 419 people who are sick, 293 complained of trouble breathing, as well as a fever. Temperatures in central Shan State can drop to less than ten degrees Celsius; as early as October, The Irrawaddy reported that many IDPs lacked warm clothing to protect them during cold weather.

Another 99 respondents reported suffering from chronic diarrhea. Twenty-seven IDPs said they had developed unexplained skin rashes in the current living conditions.

Details of Health Problems in Wan Wa

Dr. Suwanvanichkij, who is also an advisor to the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thai-Burma border, explained that most of these symptoms and diseases are preventable or easily treatable.

“The bottom line is that these are all direct consequences of the denial of access to primary health services,” he said, recommending that “abuses of and limitations on” aid cease, followed by assessments that would facilitate the timely provision of necessary assistance to the displaced.

“Continuing to neglect the plight of displaced ethnic civilians will not only be complicit in fueling a growing health crisis, it will likely also endanger prospects of true national reconciliation and sustainable peace in the country,” Dr. Suwanvanichkij said.

On November 27, when the data in Wan Wa was finalized, the total number of IDPs in the camp had reached 1,023. The population has since grown and Wan Wa is now reportedly hosting 1,103 internally displaced people.

After almost two months of fighting between the Burma Army and the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), community-based organizations have estimated that central Shan State’s IDP population has surpassed 10,000 people. On November 18, SHAN reported that the main source of emergency aid for displaced communities are funds collected and delivered by local groups, rather than international agencies.

The IDPs in the Wan Wa camp have fled seven villages in the area. Offensives by the Burma Army against the SSPP/SSA-N began on October 6. Since then, the region has only experienced five days without active armed conflict.

By SIMMA FRANCIS and ZAAI ZAAI LAO MURNG (Shan Herald Agency for News / S.H.A.N)

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