Six months after the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoi hydropower dam in southern Laos triggered floods that swept them from their homes, survivors are now suffering from dengue fever and malnutrition.
And this is despite firm agreements between local and foreign health agencies to work together in preventing disease and otherwise attending to health needs.
International humanitarian teams in the disaster zone in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, have reported insufficient food in the camps set up for disaster refugees, as well as shoddy handling of donated relief items and poor hygiene.
Wan Sriprasert lost his brother and his home in the village of Ban Mai to the flash floods loosed by the dam’s collapse. He and other displaced people living in temporary shelters at five remaining camps are now facing quite different threats to their lives.
“We moved into this temporary housing two months ago after having lived in tents for a long time, so we’re much happier because we have more space and at least a real roof over our heads,” Wan told a reporter touring Hadyao Camp.
But the houses, while a significant improvement over the tents where many survivors continue to live, are still packed tightly together amid unsanitary conditions. Everywhere outside are pools of wastewater, piles of garbage and huge clouds of mosquitoes and flies.
Food and clean water are insufficient to meet the refugees’ needs. This combined with unhygienic conditions is further victimising the disaster survivors. It’s not that efforts aren’t underway to help them. Health is among the highest priorities of the recovery process and there are many foreign health organisations acting in tandem with the Lao Health Ministry and local authorities to improve conditions and control disease.
The UN Resident Coordinator in Laos said a typhoid-and-cholera immunisation campaign had been successfully operating since October. The Sanamxay District Health Office and foreign humanitarian groups are carefully watching for influenza-like illnesses, severe acute respiratory infection and dengue. Nevertheless, outbreaks have been inevitable.
Laos’ Health Ministry last month acknowledged that Attapeu province was worst affected in the country’s severest national dengue epidemic in decades. The local health authority said the dengue situation was critical in Sanamxay district, where the dam disaster occurred.
It called it the epicentre of the outbreak. The ministry said Laos, with a population of 6.7 million, had more than 6,000 confirmed dengue cases and 19 deaths in the past year alone, and the current situation in Sanamxay was dire.
Viangphed Sudthi-ngoen-visa, deputy chief of the Sanamxay District Health Department, said her office handled 222 dengue cases and three confirmed deaths between October and December. She said authorities were encouraging citizens, especially those in the refugee camps, to eliminate standing water where the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue lays its eggs. But the effort hasn’t slowed the infection rate because of the huge number of puddles and pools in the camp areas.
Malnutrition, especially among children, is another major health concern in the camps. The UN Resident Coordinator said 50 of the 326 infants screened in October – ranging in age from six months to 59 months – were suffering from acute malnutrition due to insufficient food and insufficient supplies for new-born babies.
The UN official cautioned that food stocks for residents of the seven flood-affected villages whose populations were not displaced were already running low. Nor will they be able to harvest any crops at least until next October.