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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • Rohingya refugees make progress despite challenging conditions

    by Jessy Hampton | Oct 20, 2017

    With half a million Rohingya refugees having fled Myanmar for nearby Bangladesh, Medical Teams International is rushing to prevent the spread of deadly diseases at the cramped makeshift camps. A 20-person team of doctors, nurses, and support staff is on the ground, improving the health of thousands in the midst of what's become the worst refugee crisis in the world. 

    Changes are swift in the refugee settlements within the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. When hundreds of thousands of people cross a border in a matter of weeks, conditions change each minute.

    Prior to August 25, roughly 200,000 Rohingya refugees were living in two refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh. Since then, those two camps have exploded in population. Dozens of additional “spontaneous” settlements have sprung up, and thousands of people have chosen to settle along the roads.

    Within a day, laborers can clear off the tops of hills and create terraces for rudimentary shelters made of cheap black tarps.

    Bangladesh, family shelters - 18, 2017
    A large family of Rohingya refugees live in this makeshift shelter, little more than a tarp splayed across a bamboo structure.

    The weather changes just as quickly. The rainy summer season is almost over, but this means that some days are scorching while others bring downpours. When it rains, canals between the hills fill quickly, turning the hills into islands and forcing people to wade through muddy water to reach the roads.

    At the same time, progress is swift: on an empty field in the middle of a makeshift camp a small medical tent springs up, replaced the next day by a larger hospital tent, replaced the next by a temporary structure made of bamboo.

    Workers are constantly laying bricks to solidify the roads. Medical Teams International--in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and the Bangladeshi government--were able to open Kutupalong Camp’s first diarrhea management center. 

    Bangladesh, -25 Rebecca Duskin-Bruce Murray at DMC, 2017
    Rebecca, a nurse, and Bruce, a doctor, treat an infant at Medical Teams' diarrhea management clinic. 

    In just a few days, doctors and nurses from Medical Teams and a local partner have consulted with and treated 72 patients, most of whom were suffering from diarrhea and dehydration. Meanwhile, Medical Teams' community health worker program has already visited 60 families in the broader Kutupalong settlement area, giving health and hygiene guidance and supplying families with oral rehydration salts, soap, and other hygiene materials.

    Bangladesh, Kutupalong - 54, 2017Community Health Workers (with backpacks) visit their neighbors in the Kutupalong settlement area to dispense health and hygiene advice and check for signs of illnesses.

    Each day brings its own challenges, disappointments, and successes. The refugees still face dangerous camp conditions: overcrowding and inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities mean that diseases can easily spread.

    The tarps that people are using for shelter will wear out in a few months and will need to be replaced. Women and girls don’t have access to enough private latrines and other safe spaces. But the small victories still matter, like training Rohingya youth to be health workers in their communities and making sure a malnourished child gets treatment at a health care facility.

    You are supporting tireless efforts to keep these refugees healthy. More than 540,000 Rohingya are now displaced, living in filthy conditions and needing support. To learn more about the crisis and to donate, click here.

  • Rohingya refugees: The 'lucky ones' survive by boat

    by Sharon Tissell | Oct 18, 2017

    Doctors and nurses are on the ground in Bangladesh, treating Rohingya refugees who have fled horrific scenes of violence in Myanmar. Since Aug. 25, more than 540,000 refugees have spilled across Bangladesh's border, often sailing on rickety boats across the treacherous Naf River to reach camps crowded by new arrivals.

    The following dispatch comes from Sharon Tissell, a nurse who's been in Bangladesh for more than two weeks.

    Yesterday a couple of us volunteers went to Bangladesh’s southern border, where Rohingya refugees arrive by sea. 

    Bangladesh, refugees at Shar Porir, 2017 (4)
    A small boat unloads passengers -- Rohingya refugees -- after sailing from Myanmar to Bangladesh across the Naf River.

    They travel in the middle of the night, packed in fishing boats, across the mouth of the Naf River, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The day prior a boat had capsized and all the refugees perished. 

    As we drove down coast, admiring the stunning beauty, we came across an area of activity. A group of local people had gathered. We stopped to see what was happening, only to find that they had recovered yet more bodies from the previous day’s tragedy--four women and three children.  

    The bodies were already shrouded and were being carried up to the roadside to be buried. There is no way to identify them and notify their relatives. I am heartbroken as I think of what these mothers and children must have gone through in their attempt to reach safety. The Rohingya refugees are caught between unimaginable persecution and great peril in their path to safety.  

    Bangladesh, dead bodies on the beach, 2017 (3)
    Locals carry a shrouded body that washed ashore to a makeshift burial ground nearby. All the refugees aboard the boat died after it capsized while attempting to cross the Naf River. 

    But they have no choice if they want to survive.

    With heavy hearts we continued onto the most southern tip of Bangladesh. Here we boarded a small, weathered boat that took us 15 minutes away, to a small island where the beautiful mountains of Myanmar are just across the water. This is where the refugees first arrive in the early morning hours, then wait until dawn to board the small boats that take them to the mainland.  

    Minutes later we had made our way into a boat with a handful of refugees. We talked with them as we made our way back to the mainland, following them as they took their first steps in Bangladesh. The pain in their faces was unmistakable, and though they are considered the “lucky ones” who made it, I cringe to know what awaits them in the crowded refugee camps.  

    Once on the mainland, these families are counted and driven by truck north to Kutupalong Refugee Camp where we have been providing medical care since September.

    We continued up the eastern border of Bangladesh and assessed several more crossing areas, walking through rice paddies where the Bangladesh border guards monitor the refugee influx.

    We passed through more unofficial settlements, packed with refugees who have yet to be registered and do not yet receive any assistance. These are the most vulnerable, and tomorrow we begin a new assignment from the UN to open up two new clinics in these areas. I’m so grateful to be able to join the many others who are doing what we can to meet the basic need of these dear people.

    Learn more about Rohingya refugees and how you can make a difference in the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Your support brings help to thousands of deeply vulnerable people who have nowhere else to turn for medical care.

  • On the frontlines, treating Rohingya refugees.

    by Stefanie Glinski | Oct 09, 2017

    Hassan was one of the first patients to arrive at Kutupalong camp’s only diarrhea clinic. Clutching on to his mother’s arm, the three-year-old slipped in and out of consciousness, sweat dripping from his little exhausted body.

    An ethnic Rohingya, Hassan recently came to Bangladesh, fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar. More than half a million refugees arrived alongside him in recent weeks, making it the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Many witnessed their houses being burned to the ground and family members shot.

    A medical volunteer treats a child in the refugee settlement in Bangladesh.

    Conditions in the camp are dire and a large-scale cholera outbreak is feared. Most of the new arrivals live in simple housing, made from bamboo sticks and plastic sheets that have been donated to them. They wade barefoot through thick mud; in areas where open defecation is practiced, this is a breeding ground for the water-borne cholera.  

    But with over 4,790 confirmed cases of diarrhea, there is so far only one management center for the disease, operated by Medical Teams International.

    Fact: One child dies every minute from diarrhea. With the proper resources, these illnesses are preventable and treatable.

    Hassan had been sick for a few days, his parents said, initially afraid to seek medical help. Their son is now being treated at Medical Teams' in-patient unit.

    “The development of epidemics such as measles and cholera in refugee camps is our biggest fear. Acute diarrhea is a leading cause of death in children under five years old,” says Bruce Murray, a Medical Teams International doctor.

    “We are particularly concerned with the potential development of cholera. That’s why we scaled up quickly: we need the facilities for when it occurs, and we want to be in the frontlines of responding to this dangerous epidemic,” he added.

    Muddy conditions in the settlement greatly increase the risk of outbreaks.

    Medical Teams International’s diarrhea management center is located in the heart of the Rohingya refugee camp, staffed with doctors and nurses ready to treat a potential outbreak.

    The facilities were a simple storehouse just a few days ago, but the international team has turned it into a fully operational in-patient center, with freshly painted floors, walls and ceiling fans.

    “We all worked together to set this up in just two days and we are already seeing patients. The turn-around has been quick, but it had to be. The facilities are important and life-saving,” explains Nurse Theresa Durkin. She arrived in Bangladesh as a volunteer only a few days ago and is already training local medical staff at the center. While some patients arrive for a quick treatment and dose of rehydration salts, others, like Hassan, are admitted to the in-patient unit, requiring longer-term specialized care.

    Outside the clinic, Kutupalong camp is hustling and bustling. Between the already existing houses, new arrivals have set up their tents, waiting to officially register in the camps. Most people have arrived solely with the clothes on their bodies. They often wait in line for hours to receive food distributions for their families.

    “There is a lot of need here. I’m glad we’re on the ground to respond."

    “I came here less than a month ago,” says Mehda, a young mother, holding her son Mohammed on her lap. “My house was burned and I lost my husband. I came here feeling desperate and sad. I know that living here will be very difficult, but I am glad I am receiving help, I don’t know how I would survive otherwise,” she added. Playing with her little son, she says that she was referred to the diarrhea management center by health workers in the community.  

    “In a sudden-onset response like this, we often work together with partners on the ground. In our case, we have partnered both with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as well as with a local non-profit who helps provide doctors and nurses on the ground,” explains Medical Team International’s Team Leader Dominic Bowen.

    “We also have community health workers in the camps, referring new patients to us,” he adds.

    Kutupalong camp is still growing. The government of Bangladesh has just donated more land to expand the existing camp.

    “There is a lot of need here. I’m glad we’re on the ground to respond,” Murray says.
  • Needs, Access, and Resources: Why We’re Helping the Rohingya and Puerto Rico

    by Martha Holley Newsome | Sep 27, 2017

    The past month has unleashed what seems to be a startling increase in natural and manmade disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and violence. Bringing healing to people in crisis is core to who we are as an organization. It compels us to act, and to prayerfully consider where Medical Teams can help most – where the health needs are greatest, where we can gain access to those in need, and where we have the resources to respond.

    Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

    When back-to-back hurricanes slammed our neighbors in the south, we were deeply moved by the passion of our dedicated supporters, who reached out eager to help send vital hygiene supplies to evacuees.


    Faithful volunteers pack Hygiene Kits after Hurricane Harvey.

    In just a few short days we were able to package 2,000 hygiene kits to send to people displaced by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. We also partnered with an organization on the ground to meet health and hygiene needs in Florida and Georgia after Hurricane Irma. Thank you for coming alongside us to provide comfort and care to our neighbors across the country.

    Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico

    Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in mid-September, leaving the island ravaged and without power. As resources are rapidly becoming depleted, and people struggle to find basic necessities, there is a request for aid from the mainland U.S. To help our neighbors through this time of crisis, we are providing medical and health supplies as well as hygiene kits to those in need through a trusted partner.

    Mexico Earthquakes

    Two earthquakes in Mexico destroyed buildings and claimed many lives. In this case, we evaluated the opportunity to respond using our standard criteria: need, access, and resources. While the needs are great, there are already many governmental and non-governmental organizations deeply involved in responding, including in the health sector. We determined that our resources, therefore, would be put to better use elsewhere, in a crisis where health needs are overwhelming the local capacity to respond.

    Rohingya Refugee Crisis

    In less than a month, the displacement of Rohingya people from Myanmar has quickly risen to become an urgent humanitarian crisis. In informal settlements, some 400,000 refugees lack clean water, sanitation, and shelter, making it likely that disease could spread and threaten thousands of lives. 

    The needs are massive and immediate, and they are not being adequately met by governments or humanitarian players. Working in close coordination with the United Nations (UN) and with partners on the ground, we’ve determined that Medical Teams can have a significant impact in helping save lives in the midst of the Rohingya crisis.

    Our hearts are deeply grieved by the images we’ve seen and the stories we’ve heard coming out of Bangladesh. Our Humanitarian Response team has been on the ground in Cox’s Bazar--where most of the Rohingya refugees have fled--for over a week. Our initial efforts will center on providing direct health care and preventing disease outbreaks. We will also serve as a vital link between the critically ill and their access to urgent care—helping refer patients who need extra care to nearby healthcare facilities.

    Please join us in praying for all those around the world who are suffering in the midst of disaster. And pray especially for the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh—that they receive the care and comfort they need in the aftermath of tragedy.

    You can help bring healing to the Rohingya - please consider supporting our work in Bangladesh.
  • Helping families after Hurricane Harvey

    by Emily Crowe | Sep 08, 2017

    The destruction and flooding left in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas has impacted tens of thousands. “I think all of us can imagine what it would be like for us to lose our home, to be stuck in a shelter,” shared Martha Newsome, President and CEO of Medical Teams International.


    Volunteers pack supplies into Hygiene Kits for families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

    As Texas moves beyond the rescue phase, Medical Teams is responding in the recovery phase, as the needs of evacuees increase. We are working with partners on the ground to distribute Hygiene Kits—stocked with things like soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, washcloths, and more—to give dignity and comfort to families who have lost everything.

    Buying products in bulk and working with local volunteers to pack the Hygiene Kits keeps costs low. At $7 each to purchase and ship a Hygiene Kit for a family, it’s an easy way to have a big impact.

    We are dedicated to respond to disasters and help meet the urgent health needs of people impacted by crisis. We are thankful to have partners around the world who enable us to reach difficult places with vital care and supplies. We are also thankful for our local volunteers who share their time to pack and ship medical supplies—from Hygiene Kits for hurricane victims to surgical tools for hospitals in Syria.

    Our prayers are with those who lost homes and whose communities were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.

    As the US braces for more hurricanes, we remain ready to respond to meet urgent needs.