Pakistan floods: Children face a new disaster — diarrhea, dengue and other waterborne diseases

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One hour later, another child succumbs to her illness. Her weeping grandmother watches in despair as doctors also wrap her in white.

The children died from cholera, an acute diarrheal illness contracted by drinking water contaminated with bacteria.

And they were not the only ones.

More than 10 children die every day at the Mother and Child Healthcare Hospital in Pakistan’s Sindh province alone, according to doctors at the facility — all from water-related ailments stemming from this summer’s devastating floods that submerged a third of the country.

Dozens more children sleep cramped together on beds in the facility’s emergency room; some unconscious from their illness, others crying in pain. Pale and lethargic, their protruding ribs and bulging eyes are all symptoms of malnourishment.

Exhausted parents wait in the room next door in deafening silence. Numb and defeated, they do not know if their child will make it out of the hospital alive.

“The floods came and the rain fell. And then our patients came in like the floods,” said Dr. Nazia Urooj, physician in-charge at the hospital’s children emergency unit.

This is the face of a near unprecedented health crisis unfolding across Pakistan — but for many, help is not arriving. And aid groups warn the situation will only get worse if the international community doesn’t act now.

The disaster is only beginning

Flooding caused by record monsoon rains and melting glaciers in Pakistan’s northern mountain regions have so far claimed the lives of nearly 1,600 people — more than a third whom are children — and impacted an estimated 33 million more.

The force of the floodwater washed away homes, leaving tens of thousands stranded on the road without any food to eat or clean water to drink.

In Sindh, one of the worst-impacted provinces, villages have been completely cut off, making it nearly impossible for families to seek help for their sick children.

“Many children are not even reaching hospitals because the medical facilities they could access are either underwater or just not accessible,” said Aadarsh Leghari, UNICEF’s Communication’s Officer in Pakistan.

On the outskirts of Qazi Ahmed, a town in Sindh, a mother carries her young child on a rickety boat transporting stranded residents to health facilities.

A mother tries to cool her sick daughter’s forehead with a cloth soaked in dirty floodwater. Credit: Javed Iqbal/CNN

“She has got a high grade fever and become unconscious,” the mother said, while desperately trying to cool her daughter’s forehead with a cloth soaked in the dirty floodwater that made her sick.

The boats are packed with families seeking help. In the distance, parents wade waist-deep with their children and belongings, in an attempt to cross the flooded road.

Elsewhere, a young, pregnant mother of five attempts to soothe her children as they wail with hunger. Flies swarm around their faces as they cry for her attention.

Severely anemic, she makes a desperate plea for help.

“There’s no blood in my body. I need two bottles of blood,” she said, before she picks up one of her children and pats them to sleep. “I don’t think well. I have a fever. I need blood.”

The pregnant woman’s son cries, while flies swarm over his head. Credit: Javed Iqbal/CNN

A ‘plethora’ of disease

As the floodwater slowly recedes, a new disaster is emerging as tens of thousands grapple with diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria.

And it is the nation’s poorest that are most vulnerable. Rani, a mother who brought her sick three-year-old son, Abbas, to the Mother and Child Healthcare Hospital, said their village was surrounded by floods and their home completely destroyed, forcing them to live under a plastic sheet on the road.

During the day, Rani and her family endure scorching temperatures and dehydration. And at night, the mosquitoes “attack,” she said.

“We burn waste so mosquitoes cannot bite (the children),” Rani said. “We remain active at night so our children can sleep.”

Sindh has seen an acute outbreak of dengue fever — a viral infection transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, the same insect responsible for spreading Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.

It causes flu-like symptoms, including piercing headaches, muscle and joint pains, fever and rashes, though only 25% of those infected show symptoms. Extreme cases can bring bleeding, shock, organ failure, and potentially death.

Rani’s son receives care inside the hospital’s emergency unit. Credit: Javed Iqbal/CNN

Leghari from UNICEF said mosquitoes in the province were a cause for concern.

“There are no mosquito nets. It’s the mosquitoes that are bringing in malaria and disease,” he said. “The other is cholera… it’s like a plethora of disease coming out of these floodwater lakes. This is going to turn into a bigger health crisis.”

In a statement last week, the United Nations called the situation “alarming.”

“Millions of children are still grappling to survive, and we fear thousands will not make it,” the statement said.

In the waiting room of the hospital, Mai Sabagi, the grandmother of a five-year-old girl who had just died from cholera, said her family didn’t have the 1,000 Pakistani rupees ($4) needed to take her body away.

Her seven-year-old grandson died in another hospital. Two more of her grandchildren are also sick.

Mai Sabagi weeps after she learns of her grandaughter's death.

“All this has happened because of the rains,” she said. “We lost our clothes … everything. Our house has been damaged. We have not been given any relief. Poor people cannot afford treatment.”

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