Govt identifies cause of Sitakunda children's deaths, says sorry

The government has identified measles as the cause of nine children’s deaths in Chittagong's Sitakunda Upazila, but the revelation has put the whole health sector into question as those kids in a small tribe were never vaccinated.

Published : 17 July 2017, 11:51 AM
Updated : 17 July 2017, 01:56 PM

Director General for Health Services Prof Abul Kalam Azad explained their investigation reports to journalists on Monday and said “sorry” on behalf of the health officials who for decades could not reach that small tribe group consisting of 85 families who live in a remote Tripura Parha of Sonaichhari in Baraulia.

Azad said they are now revisiting their “whole micro-planning system” at the village level that they carry out before any immunisation campaign.

But, flanked by a WHO medical officer, the director general assured that there is no alarm of measles outbreak in Bangladesh.

“The measles situation is as usual across Bangladesh. This is a small isolated pocket and they never take modern treatment,” he said, adding that “if they took modern treatment then those deaths could be prevented”.

Earlier, a team of the government’s disease monitoring agency, IEDCR, rushed to the hilly village on July 11 following reports of deaths of children from an unknown disease.

The director general said the team investigated every case and carried out an anthropological study of the village.

As many as 388 people live in that area and 87 of them were taken to the hospitals after the deaths of nine.

According to the government study, the first measles case appeared on June 22 in that area. The first death was reported on July 8.

After the first death, the villagers thought it was nothing serious. But a sense of panic pervaded the village after two more children died on July 9.

Azad said the villagers gathered for prayers and lit up flames believing that it would drive away the "bad omen".

One more child died on July 11, and four died in one day on July 12, and many more fell ill.

“All of them were aged between three years and 12 years.”

“Then some youths from that community came up and informed the adjacent Bengali community about the disease. Then the Sitakunda Upazilla health and family planning officer came to know,” Prof Azad said, based on the anthropological study carried out by the IEDCR team.

“A Bengali community was living close to them. But the indigenous community does not mix with the Bengali community. They follow their own leader."

“They do not go to school. If they had gone to school, we could have known that they were left out of vaccination coverage. We give children cards after measles vaccination and every school wants to see that card when they sign them up."

“It’s unfortunate that we could not bring them under our coverage,” Azad said.

“They do not even want to go to doctors. We had to press them to take to the hospitals after this tragedy."

But the director general said they had already conducted an investigation to find out any negligence of their officials.

“I did not see the report. But we’ll take action based on the report,” he said.

He, however, said the area remained out of the vaccination coverage for decades.

“None of the 388 people took measles vaccines. Of them, 176 are below 20 years. If health officials are found negligent to work, it means it continued for the last 20 years."

The health chief of the Chittagong district, Dr Mohammad Azizur Rahman Siddiqui, also said “sorry” at the press briefing and said they would revisit their plans so that “no such small indigenous communities remained left out of our coverage”.

'Don't panic'

Measles is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. Fever, cough, runny nose, and inflamed eyes are some of the symptoms of the disease which is prevented by immunisation.

WHO’s medical officer for immunisation and vaccine development Dr Stephen Chacko at the press briefing said there is no reason for panicking after the Sitakunda deaths.

In Bangladesh, about 85 percent of children come under the coverage of measles vaccine, which is “good coverage” compared to many countries in the region.

“To stop the transmission of the disease to the entire population, about 95 percent of people must be vaccinated. It is difficult to achieve that, but Bangladesh is on track,” he said.

“Measles is a disease that we can see even in the American and European countries. We aim to eliminate this by 2020 from this region."

In 2016, they found 165 laboratory-confirmed measles cases in Bangladesh. None died.

After the 2014 large-scale measles vaccination, the number of cases declined the next year.

The next campaign will be in 2018 in Bangladesh as a special campaign is carried out every four years.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher