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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor