People of Darfur face high levels of disease and death: prevention is possible if efforts are intensified, coordinated and adequately funded, says head of the World Health Organization
15 July 2004 | Khartoum/Cairo/Geneva - Increased funds, people and supplies are critical now in the Darfur region of Sudan to prevent a major health catastrophe. Cholera, dysentery, and malaria threaten the survival of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. However, risks to people’s health can be reduced through effective health interventions within an intensified relief programme.
This was the conclusion of two top leaders of the World Health Organization as they wrapped up a mission to camps and hospitals in South and West Darfur.
"People are dying now because they are living in totally unsatisfactory conditions, but too many more could die in the coming weeks unless we prevent the lack of sanitation, malnutrition, shortage of clean water and the coming rains from combining into a recipe for death," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General, as he finished his mission into areas of South and West Darfur. "We must work urgently to prevent a health catastrophe."
Dr LEE and Dr Hussein Gezairy, Regional Director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region, also noted that even in the last month, joint action by the Federal Ministry of Health, non-governmental organisations, UNICEF and other international humanitarian agencies have resulted in important improvements for health.
There has been progress in the provision of relief, particularly health care, in the last few weeks. Good use is being made of the funds available, though logistic challenges still beset major relief operations. More people in more camps have clean water, adequate food, primary health care and proper sanitation. More therapeutic feeding centres are being opened and hospital services in Darfur are being improved. A recent mass measles campaign reaching two million children prevented about 40 000 deaths. Eyecare clinics are performing cataract surgery for adults and treating trachoma in children.
But the gap between needs and available relief are all too evident. Beyond communicable disease, the physical and mental health of women who have been subjected to sexual violence, and the longer term health needs for children are additional concerns.
"There are two dimensions to the crisis in Sudan; one political and one humanitarian. Hundreds of thousands of people's lives are now hanging in the balance, and they need help now," said Dr LEE. "The combined efforts of Government and the humanitarian community are making a difference. We appeal strongly for more external assistance to fill the gap, to make available the funds still needed for this crisis, and help ensure that threats to health are reduced."
If massive humanitarian relief is not immediately brought to the people of Darfur, the numbers of people dying each day will drastically increase. However, if the build up of the relief effort can be sustained and properly supported, the number of deaths can be kept the minimum for an emergency situation.
Dr LEE and Dr Gezairy assessed the health situation at Kalma camp outside of Nyala in South Darfur. Home to more than 50 000 people, and with 300 new people coming every day, the camp is particularly lacking sanitation. As the rainy season peaks in the coming weeks, water and mud will wash over the camp, and it will be ripe for a cholera outbreak. Left untreated, cholera can kill a person in hours.
"WHO and health partners could work to prevent a cholera outbreak, by pre-positioning supplies and by vaccinating people who are susceptible. This costs money," said Dr Gezairy. "But I guarantee the costs of an outbreak and the deadly impact it would have on people far outweigh the costs of prevention."
"In the short-term, this will alleviate suffering of people who urgently need assistance. But this is also a long-term investment in health for a region which suffers chronically from having too few hospital beds, maternal health facilities, surgeons and other specialists," said Dr Guido Sabatinelli, WHO Representative for Sudan.
Overall the UN estimates the costs of humanitarian relief at US$ 240 million. To date, less than half of that has been pledged. WHO requires about US$ 1.2 million per month to carry out its operations in the three Darfur States.
WHO is working closely with the Sudan Ministry of Health and other partners to coordinate the health response, prevent communicable disease outbreaks, and rehabilitate hospitals. With massive influxes of people around cities and towns in Darfur, the demands on hospitals have increased dramatically. WHO is supporting the refurbishment of wards, operating rooms, laboratories and training staff in key referral hospitals in the region, and helping to improve access to care.
Dr Ahmed Bilal Osman, the Sudan Federal Minister of Health, has today committed to a further transfer of 100 million Sudanese pounds (US$ 40 000) per State per month to hospitals to provide services without charging user fees, and also committed to assisting with WHO-assisted training in hospital administration. The aim is to ensure hospitals continue to serve the people of Darfur once the crisis is over.