Firefighter returns from his biggest rescue mission yet

Specialist firefighter Neil Graham has returned from a three-week deployment to Bangladesh, helping combat a deadly diphtheria outbreak.

Friday, 19th January 2018, 5:28 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 3:17 am
Neil Graham, right, with the 24-hour survival backpack he carried everywhere
Neil Graham, right, with the 24-hour survival backpack he carried everywhere

He was part of the UK International Search and Rescue Team working in refugee camps with more than 600,000 Rohingya people who have fled Burma.

The 54-year-old is a member of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s Technical Rescue Unit, based in Horley and working across the county.

He arrived home in Shoreham this morning and told of the unusual conditions the team faced when they arrived at Kutupalong Camp, south of Cox’s Bazar.

Kutupalong Camp, which measures about 30km by 20km and is home to more than 600,000 Rohingya people who have fled Burma

“It is the hot, dry season but we arrived, incredibly, in the rain, which is as unusual as snow in London in June. We also had some fog, which is also quite unusual,” he explained.

Neil and his team are experts in logistics. Alongside security, their job was to help move the medical team, set up accommodation, work at the treatment centres on the infrastructure, such as water and waste, and deal with equipment.

The medical team they were supporting was looking at cases where diptheria had developed, putting in place a course of treatment and then locating others they had been in contact with to test them.

Neil explained: “The aim is that our intervention is so successful, the team is able to withdraw after a few weeks.

Setting up one of the treatment centres, built using bamboo

“There was already a very good immunisation programme in place, so 90 per cent of the Bangladeshi people are already immunised. There is also a good programme in place for the refugees who come in. The vaccine is very successful and in the UK, there has not been a case of diptheria for six years.

“Once someone has developed diptheria, they are given a course of Diphtheria Antitoxin and it is a very successful intervention.

“Unfortunately, in the circumstances, it is a case of getting the people to the treatment. You have to build a centre suitable for the care of the people and go out to the community to make them aware of it.

“In general, the worst affected groups are children. The UK team was treating some very young children, which is obviously very distressing.”

Neil’s team helped set up three centres, two of them in the main camp, which measures about 30km by 20km.

Most of the areas where they were working were muddy and the area was packed with people.

Neil said: “This was on a much larger scale and operating over a much greater area than we usually work.

“The most difficult thing for most people is to switch off to the size of it and what we as individuals can do to help, and concentrate on doing what you can, which is more beneficial.”

Neil’s speciality is vector control, which means eradicating creatures that spread disease. He was able to advise the camp organisers generally on ways to control the insects and rodents.

Neil said: “I genuinely have rarely met such friendly, happy, incredible people and all of the refugees we met were unfailingly good humoured in the face of incredible adversity. There was no hassling of us and no pushing and shoving.

“Parts of the camp have been there since the 1990s, so some areas are relatively well established with quite complex communities already set up in it. Since August, another 250,000 people have arrived.”

Neil was replaced by another volunteer logistician from International Search and Rescue, who will also spend three weeks there.

Neil said: “The next big problem is likely to be the monsoon season in three months, because most of the roads are hard-packed earth and much of the vegetation has been removed to be used as wood.”