Pakistani hospital sinks as water-borne diseases spread

  • The hospital in Sehwan, southern Pakistan, is overcrowded
  • Patients flock from flood-affected areas
  • Thousands suffer from water-borne diseases
  • WHO warns of ‘second disaster’ after catastrophic floods

SAHWAN, Pakistan (October 3) (Reuters) – The emergency room of the main government hospital in the small town of Sehwan in southern Pakistan is overcrowded.

On a recent visit, Reuters saw hundreds of people crammed into rooms and corridors, in a desperate bid to treat malaria and other diseases that are spreading rapidly after the country’s worst floods in decades.

In the crowd, Naveed Ahmed, a young doctor in the emergency response department at the Abdullah Shah Institute of Health Sciences, is surrounded by five or six people trying to get his attention.

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The 30-year-old is keeping his cool as extended emergency services struggle to deal with thousands of patients arriving from miles around their homes after their homes were flooded when torrential rains fell in August and September.

“Sometimes we became so tired that I feel like I’m collapsing and I’m getting drip,” Ahmed, smiling, told Reuters as he sipped a cup of tea in the hospital canteen during a short break.

“But because of the prayers of these patients, we keep moving forward.”

Ahmed is on the front line in the battle to curb disease and death across southern Pakistan, where hundreds of towns and villages have been cut off by rising waters. The flood affected about 33 million people in a country of 220 million people.

Most of the 300 to 400 patients who arrive at his clinic each morning, many of them children, suffer from malaria and diarrhoea, though winter approaches, Ahmed fears other illnesses will become more common.

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“I hope that those displaced by the floods will be able to return home before winter; (if not) they will be exposed to respiratory diseases and pneumonia living in tents,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have fled their homes are living in government camps set up to house them, or simply out in the open.

Stagnant flood waters, spread over hundreds of square kilometers, can take two to six months to recede in some places, and have already led to widespread cases of skin and eye infections, diarrhoea, malaria, typhoid and dengue fever.

The crisis is hitting Pakistan at a particularly difficult time. With its economy in crisis, backed by loans from the International Monetary Fund, it does not have the resources to deal with the long-term effects of the floods.

Nearly 1,700 people died in the floods caused by torrential monsoon rains and melting glaciers. Pakistan estimates the cost of the damage at about $30 billion, and the government and the United Nations have blamed the disaster on climate change.

Authorities said more than 340 people died from diseases caused by the floods.

second disaster

According to the health ministry in Sindh province, the worst affected area, 17,285 cases of malaria have been confirmed since July 1.

Anticipating the risk of disease outbreaks after the rescue and flood relief phase, the Government of Sindh is trying to hire more than 5,000 health professionals temporarily in the most vulnerable areas.

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“We are lacking in human resources given the scale of the disease burden in the wake of the unprecedented rains and floods,” Qasim Soomro, a provincial deputy and parliamentary health minister in the Sindh government, told Reuters.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern about the impending “second catastrophe” of waterborne disease spreading across the country, particularly in Sindh.

In the ward of Sehwan Hospital, a young man with a high temperature was sitting on a bed outside the main emergency room. His mother ran to Ahmed, who attended the patient and asked a nurse to put cold compresses on his forehead.

The air was thick with humidity, and there wasn’t enough air conditioner to cool the temperatures in the crowded, family-lined corridors. The wards were filled to capacity and there was more than one patient on a handful of beds.

Ahmed, a university graduate in China, described the stress he and other medical staff were under.

“With such an influx…we cannot wait for test results for every patient to start treatment,” he said, adding that he starts giving malaria medication as soon as he sees some symptoms.

The institute in Sehwan serves people from nearby towns and regions, including those living in camps while the water recedes and rebuilding can begin.

Jagan Shahani’s daughter lost consciousness after developing a fever about a week ago. He used a boat to get out of his flooded village, Bhajara and parked a car on the nearby road that took them to Sehwan.

“Doctors said she had malaria,” he said late last week. “This is our fourth night here. There is nothing here to eat but God was so kind to provide everything,” added Shahani, whose 15-year-old daughter Hamida is recovering.

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On the outskirts of the city, hundreds of displaced people lined up for rations to be distributed in Lal Bagah, a tent camp where displaced families prepare tea and breakfast over open fires.

The Indus highway that runs through Sehwan is dotted with IDP camps.

Some are starting to go home where the water has receded enough, but not all are so lucky.

“No one here helps me but God,” said Madad Ali Bozdar. “I pray to God that the water recedes in my village and that I go back to my home.”

Buzdar, 52, is from Bubek, a town on the northeastern bank of Lake Manshar. Speaking on Friday, he said his village was still under 10 to 12 feet (3-4 meters) of water. He expected to be able to return in about two months.

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Editing by Mike Collette White and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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