Myanmar jail vaccinates hundreds amid surge in COVID-19 cases

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(Reuters) - Myanmar's main prison vaccinated more than 600 inmates against COVID-19 on the first day of a drive to inoculate inmates, state media reported on Thursday, as military authorities struggle to control a wave of infections across the country.

Infections have surged since June, with 4,980 cases and 365 deaths reported on Wednesday, according to health ministry data cited in media. Medics and funeral services put the toll much higher.

With the death toll rising, military authorities, facing widespread opposition since a February coup, plan to build 10 new crematoriums in Yangon, which will be able to cremate more than 3,000 bodies per day, state media reported this week.

Inmates in Yangon's Insein jail staged a protest last week over what activists said was a major COVID-19 outbreak in the colonial-era facility, where many pro-democracy protesters are being held.

Citing prison officials, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, said 610 inmates were vaccinated on Wednesday and more would be inoculated in coming days depending on the supply of vaccines.

"This is the first COVID-19 vaccination of prisoners," an unidentified prison officer was quoted as saying, describing it as precautionary and denying there was an outbreak at the facility.

The newspaper reported 2,500 inmates had registered to be vaccinated out of more than 9,000 in the jail.

Photographs published in the paper showed several inmates being vaccinated including Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to the deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Turnell, who had been advising on economic policy for several years, was detained a few days after Suu Kyi's elected government was overthrown by the military on Feb. 1.

The Insein jail houses thousands of political prisoners detained since the coup and journalists who have fallen foul of the junta, including U.S. journalist Daniel Fenster.

Politician Nyan Win, an adviser to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, died in hospital this month after becoming infected with COVID-19 in the jail, his party said.

Chan Aye Kyaw, a prisons department spokesman, said by telephone that about 200 inmates nationally had tested positive for the coronavirus including eight at Insein and were being treated in separate areas.

The state-run MRTV network reported on Wednesday that military authorities planned to vaccinate all of Myanmar's 40,000 inmates.

Military ruler Min Aung Hlaing called this week for more international cooperation to contain COVID-19, including with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and "friendly countries".

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Robert Birsel)