Refugee camps are by their very nature transient and the refugee camps in eastern Chad are no exception. There is a constant ebb and flow of people on the move. First, an influx of refugees fleeing during the onset of a crisis arrives at the camps. And then there are the later arrivals of people who have managed to stay a little longer at their points of origin. These constant movements make refugee camps the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases as refugees transport diseases just as easily as their belongings.
As a result of the constant migrations into Gaga camp in eastern Chad, an outbreak of meningitis occurred there recently. Meningitis is a highly contagious disease which in some cases can be fatal when not treated in time. With roughly 19,000 residents at Gaga, the consequences could be disastrous. Typical symptoms such as headaches, stiff neck and vomiting can be common. Most vulnerable are children above two years of age through adolescents.
“We noticed the symptoms in the first patient on May 18,” says Dr. Ibrahim Cisse, Gaga Camp Site Manager. “I think the following day we had five more suspected cases, all with similar complaints. By then the first lab sample was identified as Neiseria meningitides Type A bacteria. At this point we treated all the cases as the same and started a course of antibiotics.”
Any outbreak of a deadly transmittable disease like meningitis calls for immediate action. As soon as the first cases were identified, International Medical Corps sent a plan to all partners in the camp’s management and set up vaccination points at various locations, including local schools.
“All of the partners chipped in from the start,” Dr. Cisse continues. “They got the message out as to the basics of the disease and other educational messages to control any hysteria. Once the points were established, the local police deployed to provide security during vaccination.”
Organizing quickly, Dr. Cisse and the International Medical Corps staff organized 10 teams of 6 to issue vaccines provided by UNICEF with syringes provided by the WHO. Approximately 91 percent of the population or 13,537 residents were vaccinated, 11 percent higher than required by UNHCR.
“International Medical Corps was able to update on cases on a daily basis,” Dr. Cisse explains, “and naturally, when you coordinate among many people willing to help, it makes the process go more easily. Second, we quickly worked on an action plan and kept everyone up to date as quickly as possible. Rapid communication was key, and luckily we are not far from each other.”
International Medical Corps still maintains a vigilant eye on its three other camps in eastern Chad, as all lie in what is called the “meningitis belt”.
“We learned valuable lessons as a result of this outbreak,” Dr. Cisse says. “One is to train our community health workers in the detection of symptoms, so they can work directly with their fellow refugees. Secondly, if they can get people to report to the health centers in a timely fashion, then we can prevent more from dying needlessly.”