RMI Drought Suspected To Have Worsened Pink Eye Outbreak

Lack of water for hand washing blamed for 290 cases in Majuro

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, May 18, 2016) – An epidemic of conjunctivitis (pink eye) has hit the Marshall Islands, with 290 cases reported in Majuro Atoll last week, and some individuals with pink eye symptoms being banned from boarding international flights.

The Marshall Islands “is experiencing an epidemic of pink eye, which is expected to last several more weeks,” announced Dr. Kennar Briand, the interim secretary of health, on Tuesday. The contagious virus causes eye redness, itching and discharge. It usually lasts about a week.

Health officials linked the outbreak to the five-month drought this north Pacific nation has been experiencing. The severe water shortage — until heavy rains began falling this past week — meant water for hand washing has been scarce for many island residents. Although Briand said there is no known medicine that cures pink eye, doctors routinely issue prescriptions for antibiotic cream. Ministry of Health ran out of the antibiotic ointment several weeks ago. The two local pharmacies in Majuro said they ran out of the medication early last week after dozens of patients sought prescription treatment.

The outbreak has been building since late April, when several outer islands reported an increasing number of cases that health officials said were linked to the extended drought affecting the Marshall Islands. Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine declared a drought disaster in March, and U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed the drought disaster late last month, paving the way for increased American funding for drought relief.

Briand urged people with pink-eye symptoms “not to come to school, church or work until their symptoms are resolved.”

He said the Ministry of Health is monitoring the epidemic and “will notify the public when the epidemic is resolved.”

Brian also urged people not to travel internationally or to outer islands while experiencing conjunctivitis to limit spread. United Airlines has denied boarding to passengers showing symptoms since the epidemic began on the advice of Hawaii state quarantine officials.

Statistics provided by the Ministry of Health showed 63 cases of pink eye identified on May 9. The number dropped to 16 per day this past weekend, with a total of 290 cases identified in a seven-day span.

Dr. Alexander Pinano, who runs the private Majuro Clinic, received an emergency order of pink eye medications Monday this week , he said that within two days he dispensed 50 prescriptions for local residents. “I now have plenty on hand,” he added.

Majuro hospital said they also received a special order over the weekend and expected more supplies later in the week.

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