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Public Health Services need urgent help to combat humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa, World Health Organization tells donors

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Four months after the first warnings of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Southern Africa, several hundred thousand people may die because funds to provide basic relief for those who suffer have not been raised.

The World Health Organization (WHO) today urged international partners meeting at its Geneva headquarters to do more to help Southern African nations stem a tide of death and disease from the humanitarian crisis in the region.

In the worst-affected countries - Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho and Swaziland - As many as 300,000 malnourished people may die of diseases they might otherwise fight off, had they been given a minimum of food and basic health care.

WHO, the UN's specialized agency for health, says the current emergency in Southern Africa is not just a food shortage but a comprehensive humanitarian crisis. According to the latest estimates, it now threatens the lives of nearly 14.5 million people. But by supporting governments to provide health interventions with around (US) $3.40 per person, WHO believes this wave of death and disease could be averted. So far, known funding amounts to (US) 35 cents per person.

"The cruel irony is that we know how to save thousands of people, and are ready to do it, yet the world seems unwilling to pay the small cost of making it happen," said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General. "Money is needed to provide medicines, keep health workers in place, ensure therapeutic feeding, keep supply lines open, track the extent of suffering and plan the most effective response," she added.

Poverty is the main cause of vulnerability and was taking its toll before this crisis. But the risk of a woman dying in childbirth may have doubled in parts of Malawi in a few months, while in Zimbabwe the death rates from tuberculosis and acute respiratory infection have increased drastically in the last three years. In 2002 Malawi had one of its worst ever cholera epidemics.

The World Health Organization, is calling on donors to support its efforts to strengthen public health capacities throughout the region. Urgent and priority health needs, including clean water and sanitation, therapeutic feeding, accessible and effective health care, must be addressed - and quickly, the agency says. Southern Africa cannot wait.

The WHO has deployed full-time health experts dedicated to emergency response and is using funds currently available to help countries address the crisis. Rapid response teams for detecting and tackling disease outbreaks, and responding to malnutrition, are already working within the affected countries.

In Southern Africa long-term economic crisis has been compounded by two consecutive years of drought and erratic rainfall, causing a severe shortage of the staple crop, maize. In addition, extremely high rates of HIV/AIDS infection that have reduced the numbers of productive adults and professionals, including health workers.

At the same time, governments struggle to provide public health services on budgets as low as $20 a year per person; health facilities often have neither the staff nor the medicine to care for the sick who daily turn up on their doorstep.

The health component of the UN consolidated appeal includes $48m for health which will be used to ensure lifelines such as clean water, food, and basic health services and will save lives.

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