Mystery illness hits 2,000 in eastern Burma

Sept 24, 2009 (DVB), Nearly 2,000 people, mostly children, have been infected with an unknown illness in two states in eastern Burma, with fears that it may be either the H1N1 virus or a mass dengue fever outbreak.

Five villages in Kachin state have so far been hit after children at a local primary school came down with the illness on 13 September.

According to Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), 1,600 people in total have been infected in Kachin state, with around 900 described as being in a serious condition. The majority of these are aged between two and 15 years old.

Around 300 villagers in Karen state have also been affected, the majority in Pa-an town, the capital of Karen state. The area is under control of the Karen National Union, Burma principal ethnic armed opposition group.

No deaths have yet been reported in Karen state, according to Naw Thaw Thee Phaw of the Backpack Medics, an international medical group that operates in the region.

"There are clinics in the area and medical workers are now conducting workshops to educated people [about the disease]," she said.

Symptoms were similar to that of dengue fever, she said, adding that outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria at this time year are common, although only one person was tested positive for malaria.

A statement released by Burma Campaign UK said that locals had reported symptoms such as bleeding noses and sore throats, and voiced concern that it could be the H1N1 swine flu virus.

"Dealing with a serious outbreak of swine flu or similar illness will be very difficult because of the restrictions on aid delivery and lack of money spent on health by the dictatorship," said Nang Seng, campaigns officer at BCUK.

In 2000, the World Health Organisation ranked Burma's healthcare system the second worst in the world, one above Sierra Leone.

Many civilians in eastern Burma frequently cross into Thailand to seek medical help, given the lack of adequate facilities in Burma.

Reporting by Naw Noreen

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