In response to the current diphtheria outbreak, WHO, Unicef and health sector partners are working with the government to vaccinate over 475,000 children in Rohingya refugee camps, temporary settlements and surrounding areas, in Cox's Bazar.
As many as 31 deaths and 3,954 suspected cases of diphtheria have been reported from Cox's Bazar between November 8, 2017 and January 11, said Unicef on Sunday.
Nearly 10,594 contacts of these suspected cases have been put on diphtheria preventive medication.
"All efforts are being made to stop the spread of diphtheria further. The vaccination of children in the Rohingya camps and nearby areas demonstrates the health sector's commitment to protecting people, particularly children, against deadly diseases," said Dr Bardan Jung Rana, a WHO Representative to Bangladesh.
Nearly 150,000 children, aged six weeks to seven years, received pentavalent vaccine (that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, haemophilus influenza type b and hepatitis), and nearly 166,000 children, aged 7 to 17 years, were given tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine, during a three-week vaccination campaign that ended on December 31.
Two more rounds of vaccination with a diphtheria-containing vaccine, at intervals of one month, are planned to fully protect the children in camps and surrounding areas.
Unicef Country Representative Edouard Beigbeder said children are particularly vulnerable to diphtheria and volunteers are making door-to-door visits in the Rohingya settlements to ensure all children receive vaccination.
The Unicef official said the massive influx within a very short time has heavily affected basic services in the settlement areas.
"They've no choice but to live in a very congested environment, which is impacting their health and quality of life.We're making continued efforts to improve the conditions of the camps. At the same time, diphtheria vaccination is vital to reducing the risk of further outbreak," said the Unicef Country Representative.
To limit the spread of diphtheria to communities living near the Rohingya camps and settlements, nearly 160,000 children in 499 schools of Teknaf and Ukhiya sub-districts are also being vaccinated. This initiative began on January 1 last.
The vaccination drive was initiated on a day when children attend school in large numbers to avail themselves of free books provided by the government at the start of the academic year.
WHO, Unicef and other health partners are working with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to establish fixed locations for immunisation in the Rohingya camps to continue to provide lifesaving vaccines to children, in line with Bangladesh's childhood immunisation programme.
WHO has released US$1.5 million from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies over the next six months to scale up the response to diphtheria among the Rohingya population in Cox's Bazar.
The funds are being used to support immunisation; provide essential medicines and supplies; improve capacities for laboratory testing, case management and contract tracing; and engage with communities.