Killer epidemic hits warlord's army: Khun Sa's role in opium trade puts him beyond help as meningitis spreads in remote stronghold

HO MONG, Burma - The rebel army of Khun Sa, the Burmese warlord, has been hit by a meningitis-related epidemic that has killed more than a dozen people and created a medical crisis in his remote jungle domain.

'This is the biggest problem we've ever had,' Sai Myint said recently at his hospital in Ho Mong, Khun Sa's well-protected mountain stronghold in the middle of some of the most fertile opium-poppy growing land in the world.

So far this year about 200 cases of the blood disease meningococcaemia have been reported to Dr Sai's hospital; 15 have since died. Another 125 people, mostly soldiers, have been treated for meningitis with almost no fatalities.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. The most severe form is caused by the bacteria, Neisseria meningitidis, getting into the spinal fluids. In meningococcaemia, the same germ gets into the blood. Death can occur within 12 hours of symptoms appearing.

Meningitis was long epidemic in military communities, where people live in close quarters for lengthy periods of time. Preventative medicine has reduced the problem.

Dr Sai was optimistic about the chances of controlling the diseases and proud of the relatively few fatalities, but the sad state of his 10-room, four-doctor hospital clearly complicates his task. Medicines imported by the carload from Thailand are dispensed from a rickety student's desk to outpatients. More serious cases lie on cots in rooms with sand floors or on blankets laid on cement.

Around the corner, assistants inject procaine penicillin, a treatment for meningitis, into soldiers' buttocks, re-using the same syringe and needle over and over again after dipping them briefly into tepid water.

'Budget problems,' Dr Sai said, smiling weakly. 'We just can't afford disposable syringes.' Besides, the hospital had no equipment to test for HIV, the virus that causes Aids and is known to be transmitted through re-used needles, let alone to treat it, he admitted.

Khun Sa is a drugs warlord whose Mong Tai Army controls a big section of the notorious Golden Triangle where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. International narcotics agents say he reaps millions of dollars in profits from the trade in opium, from which heroin and morphine are derived.

He maintains he plays a more passive role by taxing drugs exported out of the area of Burma's north-eastern Shan state that he controls, just like any other commodity. He claims to make no more than dollars 10m ( pounds 6.8m) a year from it.

However, given the international revulsion toward his role in the drugs trade and the animosity between him and the repressive Rangoon government, Khun Sa can expect little help from the outside world.