- The children died of cholera, an acute diarrheal disease contracted by drinking water contaminated with bacteria.
More than 10 children die every day at the Maternal and Child Health Hospital in Pakistan’s Sindh province, according to doctors at the center, all from water-related ailments stemming from this summer’s devastating floods that submerged a third of the country.
Dozens more children sleep in cramped beds in the center’s emergency room; some unconscious due to their illness, others crying in pain. Pale and lethargic, their protruding ribs and bulging eyes are signs of malnutrition.
Exhausted parents wait in the next room in deafening silence. Numb and defeated, they don’t know if their son will make it out of the hospital alive.
“The floods came and the rain fell. And then our patients came like the floods,” said Dr. Nazia Urooj, a doctor in charge of the hospital’s children’s emergency unit.
This is the face of an almost unprecedented health crisis unfolding across Pakistan, but for many, help is not forthcoming. And aid groups are warning that the situation will only get worse if the international community doesn’t act now.
The disaster is just beginning
Floods triggered by record monsoon rains and melting glaciers in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan have so far killed almost 1,600 people, more than a third of whom are children, and affected some 33 million more.
The force of the floods swept away homes, leaving tens of thousands stranded on the road without food or clean water to drink.
In Sindh, one of the hardest-hit provinces, villages have been completely cut off, making it almost impossible for families to seek help for their sick children.
“Many children do not even reach hospitals because the medical facilities they could access are under water or simply not accessible,” said Aadarsh Leghari, Communications Officer for UNICEF Pakistan.
On the outskirts of Qazi Ahmed, a town in Sindh, a mother carries her young son in a rickety boat that transports stranded residents to health centers.
“He has a high fever and is unconscious,” the mother said, as she desperately tried to cool her daughter’s forehead with a cloth soaked in the dirty water from the flood that made her sick.
The boats are full of families seeking help. In the distance, parents wade waist-deep with their children and belongings, in an attempt to cross the flooded street.
Elsewhere, a young and pregnant mother of five tries to calm her children as they cry from hunger. Flies swarm around her faces as they clamor for her attention.
Severely anemic, she makes a desperate plea for help.
“There is no blood in my body. I need two bottles of blood,” she said, before picking one of her children up and patting them to sleep. «I don’t think well. I have a fever. I need blood.”
A ‘plethora’ of diseases
As the floodwaters slowly recede, a new disaster emerges as tens of thousands battle diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria.
And it is the nation’s poorest who are most vulnerable. Rani, a mother who took her sick three-year-old son Abbas to the Maternal and Child Health Hospital, said her village was flooded and their house completely destroyed, forcing them to live under a plastic sheeting 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 can’t bite (children),” Rani said. “We stay active at night so our kids 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 throbbing headaches, muscle and joint pain, fever, and rashes, although only 25% of those infected show symptoms. Extreme cases can lead to hemorrhage, shock, organ failure, and potentially death.
UNICEF’s Leghari said mosquitoes in the province were a cause for concern.
“There are no mosquito nets. It is the mosquitoes that bring malaria and disease,” he said. “The other one is cholera…it’s like a plethora of diseases that come out of these flood lakes. This will become a bigger health crisis.”
In a statement last week, the United Nations called the situation “alarming.”
“Millions of children are still struggling to survive and we fear that thousands will not,” the statement said.
In the hospital waiting room, Mai Sabagi, the grandmother of a five-year-old girl who had just died of cholera, said her family did not have the 1,000 Pakistani rupees ($4) needed to remove her body.
His seven-year-old grandson died in another hospital. Two other of her grandchildren are also sick.
“All this has happened because of the rains,” he said. “We lost our clothes… everything. Our house has been damaged. We have not received any relief. Poor people cannot afford treatment.”