A Medical Crisis Looms On Nauru


The Nauruan government has confirmed that the Nauru Hospital burned down yesterday morning, taking with it x-ray facilities, the pharmacy, medical records and treatment capacity. Joanna Olsson, from the Nauru Government's information office, told the ABC she was worried this could result in a medical emergency. At the same time, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced that over 100 asylum seekers on the island have contracted gastroenteritis.

While it will be difficult to pinpoint its origin, it is possible that poor water quality and environmental health had something to do with the gastro outbreak. Detainees, using protected Twitter accounts, have stated that there are only six working toilets for use by the 400 asylum seekers detained there, which is insufficient to accommodate the sick.

A lack of adequate sanitation greatly increases the risk of spread of infection to other inmates, leading several human rights agencies to express concern. If detainees' claims are true, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers falls short of global minimum standards for sanitation in humanitarian emergencies, which are used in refugee camps worldwide.

Tanya Plibersek this morning accepted that there is a health crisis on Nauru, but any action taken now may be too little, too late. Medication in the centre is not stockpiled in sufficient quantities to deal with a large outbreak like this, and with the general hospital out of action it is unclear whether there are enough drugs in the country to treat the sick asylum seekers or prevent the spread of infection.

A spokeswoman from DIAC has confirmed that those asylum seekers who are not ill have been quarantined, however no comment was made regarding the adequacy of water and sanitation supplies or as to whether separate clean facilities have been made available for healthy asylum seekers. With up to 17 people living in each tent, insufficient water for washing and hygiene, it is only a matter of time before more people fall ill.

Nauru's integrated water resources manager Haseldon Buraman explained in 2012 that because groundwater is contaminated with faecal matter, e-coli and other bacteria, Nauru is “heavily reliant” on diesel-powered desalination units that produce drinking water.

Despite having dedicated water processing facilities, detainees on Nauru have consistently complained that treated water is brackish and causes skin irritations. Several asylum seekers who have been transferred from Nauru to mainland facilities have had skin infections that only started to heal once they were moved off the island.

The Australian Government was warned in January that water and sanitation arrangements at the Nauru centre were cause for concern and could lead to outbreaks of disease. Human rights activists are asking why nothing was done earlier to prevent the outbreak.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.