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Deadly measles outbreak ‘not contained’, say Naga activists

Naga children are among the most vulnerable to the outbreak of epidemics in this, the most isolated region of Burma. (from DVB TV)

Several representatives of the Naga community in northwestern Burma have reacted angrily to a government announcement that the deadly measles virus, which recently struck the region, has been contained.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Naw Aung San, the general-secretary of the Naga National Affairs Council, a local NGO, said, “We can accept the government’s claim that the outbreak has been taken under control in those six villages [around Thankholama]. However, it would be out of the question if they are trying to insist the outbreak has been suppressed in every village throughout the region.

“Our question to the government is: ‘Are there any health workers or doctors assigned full-time to monitor and control the disease?’ From what we see, the answer would be ‘no’.

“Under these circumstances, there is no way we can accept the Department of Health statement that the disease is under control.”

In a joint-statement on Tuesday, 49 youth groups and civil society organisations said the outbreak of measles was due to a lack of healthcare and vaccination programmes in the area. The groups pointed to a lack of adequate access and transportation to the Naga Self-Administrated Zone, which is located in a remote part of Sagaing Division.

The statement also noted that annual food shortages often leave children malnourished, which contributes to the spread of disease.

The outbreak of measles first appeared in the northwest frontier region on 6 June. Though the Department of Health said this week that 25 persons in Lahe Township had succumbed to the measles virus, local reports put the figure as more than 40 across the region.

Activists say that since June the delivery of aid from the regional government and health department has not been quick enough.

Speaking to DVB on Wednesday, Naw Aung San said, “The reaction has been very slow. We are requesting the government to arrange more aid immediately.”

He said there has been a breakdown in communication when arranging for the transportation of aid to the Naga region. “Humanitarian aid is still stuck in Mandalay, and the government promised — but did not arrange – transportation.”

As of 12 August, he said, 42 people have been reported dead, many of them children. Despite this growing fatality rate, Naw Aung San said the outbreak is not being dealt with urgently enough, and urged the government to dispatch more health workers to the area, and to provide vaccinations.

“The government has misinformed the public twice already, saying that everything is under control–we cannot accept this kind of public misinformation,” he said by telephone.

One of the challenges with delivering aid is that the Naga region is so very isolated and mountainous.

“There are no roads for cars, so it takes about two or three days to reach [an outlying] village,” Naw Aung San told DVB, adding that community-based responders are doing their best, and often deliver food and supplies via motorbike.

Dr Soe Lwin Nyein, director-general of the Department of Health, visited the Naga region with health department officials at the beginning of August, when they established quarantines in Htanhkaw Larma and nearby villages, and provided measles vaccinations to local residents. On that trip he said the outbreak had been contained.

International medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières does not have a presence in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, but yesterday received approval from the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS) to respond to the crisis.

“We will approach the MoHS with proposals of how we can respond in the next steps in preventing further occurrences of contagious diseases in Naga,” a MSF spokesperson told DVB in an email.

A rise in other diseases such as malaria, dysentery and respiratory illnesses has also been identified. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable, especially since a famine swept through the area in March last year, leaving many people malnourished and unable to withstand disease.

A meeting was held between the Naga Emergency Response Team and Burma’s Vice President Henry Van Thio on 14 August in Rangoon to discuss more efficient transportation of aid. The Sagaing regional government has since pledged they will provide a helicopter.

“What is surprising is that the regional government could not form an emergency response committee or mechanism until today due to lack of resources,” said Naw Aung San on Wednesday. “This [suggests] that the government is not serious and incapable of handling what is happening to the Naga. This is a very unfortunate and unexpected attitude from the government.”

According to a Reuters report on Wednesday morning, measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. Approximately 114, 900 people died from measles in 2014 — mostly children under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organization.