Francis Markus, IFRC, in Ulaanbaatar and Hentii
Hand, foot and mouth disease has claimed many lives in mainland China and Taiwan, but a Red Cross awareness-raising campaign is credited with reducing the risks in Mongolia.
When Batjargal’s two-year-old grandson developed a rash on his hands and in his mouth and a fever and headache, he lost no time in rushing the boy to Ulaanbaatar’s main hospital for infectious diseases.
"I heard about all those children dying in China from hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), so I was terribly worried," said Batjargal, as he cradled the child in a hospital room shared with two other babies and their mothers.
In Mongolia, there have been more than 2,500 cases of the disease, with some 30 patients suffering complications including encephalitis, pneumonia and myocarditis. Fortunately for the little boy, Tuguldur, he’s responding to treatment and is likely to be allowed home within a few days.
So far there have been no fatalities from the disease in Mongolia unlike in mainland China, which has reported more than 40 HFMD deaths out of 176,000 cases, or Taiwan, with nine deaths out of only 272 cases. Doctors believe that one explanation may be the timely response by both the Mongolian government and the Mongolian Red Cross Society.
Health ministry officials started making contingency plans even before any cases were reported in Mongolia and deployed new equipment such as heart monitors, ultrasound machines and disinfection apparatus to provincial hospitals.
Meanwhile, the Mongolian Red Cross Society - supported by cash from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ disaster relief emergency fund - rolled out an awareness-raising campaign including 35,000 brochures and 25,000 stickers, together with 3,500 hygiene kits.
The message: simple things like just thoroughly washing your hands can help protect you from infection.
"We’re really grateful for the Red Cross awareness campaign material because it’s very eye-catching and attractive to children," says Erdenechimeg, a health worker in a local clinic in Hentii province, about five hours’ drive east of Ulaanbaatar.
The province is one of the areas seriously affected by the disease, with some 138 cases. Local Red Cross workers say the number of cases had started to recede, but have picked up again in the wake of flooding which has hit the area over recent days.
The floods have left behind them obvious health risks. In the districts on the outskirts of the tiny provincial capital, a sharp stench hits the nostrils, thrown up by the overflow from almost every household’s latrine mixed with a thick layer of mud.
"We need another two tonnes of chlorine to carry out proper disinfection, but we have run out of funds to buy more," says Otgontsetseg, an expert on disease prevention sent from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Altaa Erdenchulun, a Mongolian Red Cross health programme manager, is concerned that the flooding and the onset of the summer heat could lead to the spread of the disease, particularly in rural areas, where hygiene awareness is often low.
"What we need to do now is build more capacity and improve communications at the grass roots level, so that if we have an outbreak of a disease which affects remote areas, we will be able to respond more effectively," she says.