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Diseases still rampant with influx

Subject: Diseases still rampant with influx of migrants 

Date: 27 Apr 1997 
The Nation 
Diseases still rampant with influx of migrants 


THE Thai government has worked hard to rid infectious diseases such as 
malaria, tuberculosis, syphillis, elephantiasis and leprosy from within its 
borders. But with the recent influx of illegal immigrant labour from 
neighbouring countries where such diseases are still rampant, such as Burma, 
the threat of infection among the Thai population has intensified. 

''Thai employers try to avoid registering their workers because all they are 
concerned about is keeping labour costs down. But what they do not realise is 
that these foreign workers can be disease carriers. They are not aware of the 
importance of medical checkups for these people and could end up bringing the 
risk of infection into their own homes," said Dr Saravudh Suvannadabba, 
Director of the Ministry of Health's Filariasis Division. 

Thailand has successfully reduced the infection rate of malaria in the 
population to 0.2 per cent, tuberculosis to 0.13 per cent, syphillis to 0.005 
per cent, elephantiasis to 0.002 per cent and leprosy to 0.006 per cent. 
However, among illegal immigrants who have been inspected by the ministry, the 
occurrence of malaria is 0.31 per cent, syphillis 0.11 per cent, elephantiasis 
0.04 per cent and leprosy 0.002 per cent. 

''These figures are taken only from the immigrants who have registered. There 
are still others out there who have not come. We assume that those who come to 
us are confident that they will pass the medical examination because if they 
fail they will be deported. Infection rates would be higher among those who do 
not come for the registration and medical checkup," Saravudh said. 

Saravudh said that field work results indicate a 20 per cent infection rate of 
malaria among Burmese and two per cent for elephantiasis. ''Not to mention 
other minor occurrences of diarrhea and polio," he said. 

Those who register are not checked for polio, however, the division remains 
cautious because those who under a medical checkup are adults and polio 
usually only occurs in children. 

''The rate of infection among those in the field and the ones who come for 
checkups is very different and warrants attention," he said. 

In the case of malaria, the infection rate along the Thai-Burmese border is 
between 70 and 90 per cent. Therefore, the division is on alert to see if the 
number of Thais along the border becoming infected starts to rise. 

''Presently, we are very much concerned about the border areas because that is 
where the majority of the illegal immigrants are working. They have not yet 
penetrated into the major cities because of the regulations imposed on their 
employment. If we did not impose such measures, we would have had more 
problems by now." 

Infection will spread to more Thais if proper attention is not paid to 
improving the living conditions of illegal immigrants. However, Saravudh said 
that it is very difficult for the government to reach theme because employers 
try very hard to conceal them. ''They do not understand that we are trying to 
help," he said. 

''However, it is unfair to accuse illegal immigrants of being disease 
carriers. The public must understand that infection can spread simply because 
these people are more likely to be carrying such diseases than Thais." 

Scarce medical resources are also being further stretched by their increasing 
numb, he said. 

''Say we have 100 beds in a hospital, 60 beds might be taken up by Burmese 
immigrants. It is a dilemma because if we do not treat these people they might 
spread new strains of diseases to Thais. But if we spend our resources on 
them, the locals will complain," said Saravudh. 

Elephantiasis is of particular concern. The strain from Burma may not show up 
on a regular blood test, while symptoms may not show for as long as nine to 10 
years after infection, by which time it is much too late to cure it. 

''I urge employers to register their workers and bring them in for a checkup 
because the stakes are much higher if they don't. They may benefit from cheap 
labour in the short term but could also suffer ill consequences all their