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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor