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Pakistan floods easing, but health crisis looms

Jamila Achakzai Swat
September 15, 2022

Waterborne diseases are spreading in northwestern Pakistan as floodwaters recede. Doctors do not have enough medicine to treat displaced people living in crowded camps.

Apples sitting in brown water
Diseases are being spread by unsanitary waterImage: Hussain Ali/AA/picture alliance

Gul Makai from Swat district in the northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was forced from her home after floodwaters inundated her village.

Although the waters have receded, the flooding has left behind unsanitary conditions in which dangerous pathogens can easily spread. Medicine and clean water are scarce in this remote area of Pakistan.

Makai is staying in a flood shelter 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from her home and tries to cool her crying infant son with a handheld fan.

The 11-month-old fidgets on a plastic floor mat constantly scratching his skin, which has been infected with scabies. Two of her other children are also infected. The ailment is spread by microscopic mites that burrow into the skin. 

"Look at the rashes and scabs on his body. He scrapes them with fingers and cries, while the humid heat adds to his misery in this tent," Makai told DW. The temperature hovers around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) with 60% humidity.

Flood destruction displaces communities

Much of Swat district is situated in a river valley surrounded by mountains and it was one of the worst hit areas in northern Pakistan by last month's record flooding, which washed away infrastructure and houses.

Local authorities set up tent camps for displaced people on the grounds of a school. Makai said she received medicated cream for scabies after arriving at the camp, but was not given any further medical assistance.

Cholera, diarrhea and dysentery are also spreading in the displacement camps due to lack of clean water.

Nauman Khan from the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA), a medical NGO, told DW at a camp in Swat's capital, Saidu Sharif, that stagnant rainwater used for drinking and washing was spreading disease.

Cases of mosquito-borne dengue fever have also been reported. Khan said mosquito nets and repellent are needed.

He added that women are also unable to maintain menstrual hygiene, as pads and tampons are not available.

"I detected eight cases of yeast infection in just one day and found the repeated use of a piece of cloth [by menstruating women] caused it," he said. Women are also unable to access pain relievers.

A 23-year-old woman told DW anonymously that the tablets and herbal tea normally used to treat menstrual pain are not available. 

"We have to drink warm water or walk around for relief, but those home remedies fail to save us from the embarrassment of men knowing about a matter very private for us," she said.

Medicine in short supply

Aid organizations say more medicine is urgently needed to stop the spread of waterborne diseases after the flooding. Pharmacies are out of painkillers, antibiotics, and medicines for skin and gynecological issues, diabetes and eye infections.

Asadullah Khan, an aid worker from the Pakistani social welfare charity Edhi Foundation, told DW that many of his acquaintances in Swat have contacted relatives in other parts of Pakistan hoping to acquire insulin and other medicine, only to find pharmacies are out of stock.

Khan, who is based in the Swat valley's northern Kalam region, added a World Health Organization (WHO) team visited a local hospital and promised provision of essential medicines and other goods.

Pharmaceutical companies have blamed the government for drug shortages, as a price cap has raised the cost of production and led to suspended manufacturing.

"When a finished product costs us [companies] more than the allowed price, how we will continue manufacturing it? It's the simple principle of doing business," Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association chairman Hamid Raza told DW.

He added the issue would be resolved if the government hiked prices in proportion to inflation.

Swat District health officer Mohammad Saleem Khan told DW that a health crisis could spread out of control if medical supplies are not provided soon.

"We [health department] are trying our best to ensure the availability of medicines but things are fast worsening. We need more medicine," he said.

How Pakistan floods are impacting children's education

Edited by: Wesley Rahn