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Pakistan hospital overwhelmed as flood-borne diseases spread

The emergency room of the main government hospital in Sehwan, a small town in southern Pakistan, is overwhelmed.

On a recent visit, Reuters saw hundreds of people crammed into rooms and corridors, desperately seeking treatment for malaria and other diseases that are spreading rapidly after the country’s worst flooding in decades.

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


The 30-year-old remains calm as emergency services scramble to cope with thousands of patients arriving from miles around after their homes were submerged under water when heavy rains fell in August and September.

“Sometimes we are so overworked that I feel like collapsing and putting on an IV drip,” a smiling Ahmed told Reuters over a cup of tea in the hospital canteen during a short break.

Women sit with their children suffering from malaria as they receive medical assistance at the Sayed Abdullah Shah Institute of Medical Sciences in Sehwan, Pakistan, on September 29, 2022.
(REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

“But it is thanks to the prayers of these patients that we are moving forward.”

Ahmed is on the front lines of the battle to limit disease and death in southern Pakistan, where hundreds of towns and villages have been cut off by rising waters. The deluge has affected around 33 million people in a country of 220 million.

Most of the 300-400 or so patients who arrive at his clinic each morning, many of them children, suffer from malaria and diarrhoea, although with winter approaching, Ahmed fears other illnesses will become more common.

“I hope that people displaced by the floods will be able to return to their homes 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.

The stagnant floods, which extend for hundreds of square kilometers, can take two to six months to recede in some places and have already caused widespread cases of skin and eye infections, diarrhoea, malaria, typhoid fever and dengue fever.

The crisis hits Pakistan at a particularly bad 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 have died in floods triggered by heavy monsoon rains and melting glaciers. Pakistan estimates the cost of the damage at $30 billion, and the government and the United Nations have blamed climate change for the catastrophe.

More than 340 people have died from diseases caused by the floods, officials said.


‘Second disaster’

According to the health department of Sindh province, the worst-affected region, 17,285 cases of malaria have been confirmed since July 1.

Anticipating the risk of disease outbreaks after the rescue and relief phase of the floods, the Sindh government is seeking to recruit more than 5,000 health professionals on a temporary basis in the highest-risk districts.

“We are short on human resources considering the magnitude of the disease burden after the unprecedented rains and floods,” Qasim Soomro, a provincial lawmaker and parliamentary secretary for health in the Sindh government, told Reuters.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised concerns about an impending “second disaster” of waterborne diseases spreading across the country, particularly in Sindh.

In Sehwan’s hospital ward, a young man with a high fever was having seizures in a bed outside the main emergency room. His mother ran to Ahmed, who attended to the patient and asked a male nurse to put cold compresses on his forehead.

The air was thick with humidity, and there weren’t enough air conditioners to cool temperatures in the corridors packed with beds. Wards were filled to capacity and a handful of beds had more than one patient in them.

Ahmed, a university graduate in China, described the pressure he and other doctors were under.

“With such an influx, we cannot wait for the test results of each patient to start treatment,” he said, adding that he starts administering malaria drugs as soon as he sees some symptoms.


The institute in Sehwan serves people from neighboring towns and districts, including those living in camps while the waters recede and reconstruction can begin.

Jagan Shahani’s daughter fell unconscious after coming down with a fever a week ago. She used a boat to get out of her flooded village of Bhajara and flagged down a car on the nearby road that took them to Sehwan.

“The doctors said I had malaria,” he said late last week. “This is our fourth night here. There is nothing to eat here, but Allah has been very kind in providing everything,” added Shahani, whose 15-year-old daughter Hameeda is now recovering.

On the outskirts of the city, hundreds of displaced people queued for rations to be distributed at Lal Bagah, a tented settlement where displaced families prepared tea and breakfast over open fires.

The Indus Highway through Sehwan is dotted with tent camps for displaced people.

Some are beginning to return home where the waters have receded sufficiently, but not all are so lucky.

“There is no one here to help me except Allah. I pray to Allah that the waters recede in my village and I can return to my home,” Madad Ali Bozdar said.

Bozdar, 52, is from Bubak, a village located on the northeastern shore of Lake Manchar. Speaking Friday, he said his town was still under 10 to 12 feet (3-4 meters) of water. He hoped to be back in about two months.

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