A specialist West Sussex firefighter returned today (Friday) from a three-week deployment to Bangladesh helping combat a deadly diphtheria outbreak.
Neil Graham, a member of the WSFRS Technical Rescue Unit (TRU), which is based in Horley and works across the county, was part of a 40-strong team of doctors, nurses and firefighters deployed from the UK’s Emergency Medical Team (EMT).
The 54-year-old, from Shoreham, supported medics treating thousands of people at risk from the rapid and deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, which is home to more than 600,000 Rohingya people.
After two days travelling the UK team were stunned to arrive in unseasonal rain, making conditions very muddy, slippery and unpleasant to work in.
Neil said: “Our first task was inspecting existing medical facilities and making sure the infrastructure there was good enough for our medics. We had to organise everything for them – the water supply, waste disposal, food and drink, security and their transport to and from the camp and around the areas they needed to travel. Some of the things they needed, like certain batteries for medical equipment, were really difficult for us to source.
“Most of the areas that were very muddy we were accessing on foot. It is impossible to get your head around the vast scale of the camps. Every access point was choked with local people coming and going and refugees coming and going from camp. You are talking about more than half a million people spread over something like 30km by 20km.
“There’s lots of noise with rickshaws, motorised tuk tuks, motorbikes, small buses and the drivers are constantly blasting their horns. In amongst all of that there are people walking cows, occasional elephants and lots of dogs.
“The refugees we met were incredible – they were so friendly and resilient and endlessly smiling. It is really difficult seeing them coping with the threat of diphtheria and knowing this immense population are struggling to keep daily life going. As soon as conditions change, when the monsoons come in a few months, things will become almost unbearable and the risk of disease will be much higher.
“The local people are incredibly tolerant of the massive influx. We came across many stories of Bangladeshi people inviting people into their homes, or feeding them or allowing them to camp in their gardens. There has been an incredible response to this crisis.”
West Sussex set up its Technical Rescue Unit in 2006. Since then the team has supported a number of significant international deployments including missions to Indonesia, Haiti, New Zealand, Japan and Bosnia. Our most recent overseas mission was to Nepal following a devastating earthquake in 2015, when, again, Neil flew out to help.
As well as providing vital humanitarian aid, international missions allow our staff to bring back vital skills for incidents closer to home.
Neil said: “This is a completely different way of working for us and gives us an invaluable experience of multi-agency working in very challenging conditions. It is amazing how quickly you get used to the noise and colour of life out there, but it is very hard to see people, particularly young children, living like that.”
West Sussex County Council Cabinet Member for Safer Stronger Communities Debbie Kennard said: “We are very proud of the work our Technical Rescue Unit does at home and abroad, and of the high regard in which it is held around the world. I am sure Neil has made a real difference and the skills and experience this deployment has given him will benefit incidents closer to home.”