Incidence and risk factors for malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea in children under 5 in UNHCR refugee camps: A retrospective study

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camps are located predominantly in rural areas of Africa and Asia in protracted or post-emergency contexts. Recognizing the importance of malaria, pneumonia and diarrheal diseases as major causes of child morbidity and mortality in refugee camps, we analyzed data from the UNHCR Health Information System (HIS) to estimate incidence and risk factors for these diseases in refugee children younger than five years of age.

Data from 90 UNHCR camps in 16 countries, including morbidity, mortality, health services and refugee health status, were obtained from the UNHCR HIS for the period January 2006 to February 2010. Monthly camp-level data were aggregated to yearly estimates for analysis and stratified by location in Africa (including Yemen) or Asia. Poisson regression models with random effects were constructed to identify factors associated with malaria, pneumonia and diarrheal diseases. Spatial patterns in the incidence of malaria, pneumonia and diarrheal diseases were mapped to identify regional heterogeneities.

Malaria and pneumonia were the two most common causes of mortality, with confirmed malaria and pneumonia each accounting for 20% of child deaths. Suspected and confirmed malaria accounted for 23% of child morbidity and pneumonia accounted for 17% of child morbidity. Diarrheal diseases were the cause of 7% of deaths and 10% of morbidity in children under five. Mean under-five incidence rates across all refugee camps by region were: malaria [Africa 84.7 cases/1000 U5 population/month (95% CI 67.5-102.0), Asia 2.2/1000/month (95% CI 1.4-3.0)]; pneumonia [Africa 59.2/1000/month (95% CI 49.8-68.7), Asia 254.5/1000/month (95% CI 207.1-301.8)]; and diarrheal disease [Africa 35.5/1000/month (95% CI 28.7-42.4), Asia 69.2/1000/month (95% CI 61.0-77.5)]. Measles was infrequent and accounted for a small proportion of child morbidity (503 cases, < 1%) and mortality (6 deaths, < 1%).

As in stable settings, pneumonia and diarrhea are important causes of mortality among refugee children. Malaria remains a significant cause of child mortality in refugee camps in Africa and will need to be addressed as part of regional malaria control and elimination efforts. Little is known of neonatal morbidity and mortality in refugee settings, and neonatal deaths are likely to be under-reported. Global measles control efforts have reduced the incidence of measles among refugee children.

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