9 June 2000
The World Health Organization (WHO) today launched a special Action Plan to try and save the countries of the Horn of Africa and their 13.4 million people from plummeting into a health crisis that threatens to turn the current food shortages into another devastating famine.
While wars and food shortages claim the headlines, the reality, says Dr Xavier Leus, Director of WHO’s Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action, is that unless health is targeted, the populations of the Horn, weakened and worn-down by consequence of natural and manmade disaster, will have no ability to save themselves, even if the weather offers respite.
"The sick cannot plant, the displaced and vulnerable need targeted health care. Right now the pictures on our television screens are of sick and malnourished children. Why do we have to wait until they show us dead ones, when comparatively little money can bring immediate and longer term health gains?"
WHO calculates that just US$25 million invested in the seven countries of the Horn will substantially reduce death and illness from preventable diseases and save thousands of lives in the coming months.
The seven countries of the Horn of Africa are Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda.
It would also allow WHO and its partners to help health professionals throughout the Horn create essential life and health sparing tools, such as those that give early warning of lethal disease outbreaks, improve the quality of what little water there is, combat severe malnutrition, and crack open essential access to basic primary health care services like immunization.
These are the kinds of initiative that are essential not only to improving countries’ ability to cope better in future, but improving the population’s basic level of health, thus reducing vulnerability.
"The countries of the Horn need more than food right now. They need the tools to help themselves survive," says Dr Lianne Kuppens, WHO desk officer for the region.
The EWARN (Early Warning) initiative, a community-based epidemic surveillance project developed by WHO’s Department of Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response in the dry, conflict-ridden south of Sudan, shows the dramatic life or death impact such tools can have. In the case of relapsing fever, for example, between September 1998 and March 1999 over 2,600 people died from a "mysterious" disease. It took six months to come to the attention of the authorities and a further three month to establish it as relapsing fever. In July 1999 WHO established EWARN, a radio-based system of 100 community and NGO sentinel reporting points. When relapsing fever hit again it was diagnosed in 3 days, only 11 people died and rapid response limited total cases to 140.
These are the types of initiative promoted by WHO’s Action Plan, a document which compliments and builds on the overall UN Emergency Appeal for the Drought in the Horn of Africa, released on 7 June 2000.
In it, WHO experts recommend priority areas for health programmes for each of the seven countries of the Horn of Africa. They also pinpoint the urgent need to support a "cross-border" approach to beat common problems that heed no international boundary.
"Sometimes it can seem that these terribly fraught countries will never emerge from the shadows of conflict, disaster and dependence. But we have two options – give up…or help our colleagues develop the tools we know are essential for protecting health," says Dr Leus.
For further information please contact Gregory Hartl, WHO Press Spokesperson, Geneva. Tel (+41 22) 791 4458, Fax (+41 22) 791 4858. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
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