May 23, 2011

Sudan 2010 © Kate Geraghty/ Fairfax Media

An MSF staff member provides a consultation for a mother and her child in Abyei.

This past January, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence, and in July the world will see the birth of a new country. It will be a country that faces enormous challenges—not least the urgent medical and humanitarian needs of millions of people.

Sudan’s brutal civil war began in 1983 and ended in 2005 when a peace agreement was signed between the North and the South, presaging the recent referendum. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical teams were active throughout (and prior to) the civil war, providing emergency medical humanitarian assistance in multiple locations.

The conflict destroyed what little infrastructure there was in the South and contributed to the region’s appalling health indicators. It is estimated that 75 percent of people in the nascent nation have no access to basic medical care. One in seven women dies in childbirth. Malnutrition and disease outbreaks are perennial concerns as well. This accounts for MSF’s continued presence in many areas. In fact, MSF’s work in Sudan is one of the organization’s largest interventions.

While the elections in January were conducted in relative peace, sporadic fighting erupted in late February and March in Upper Nile and Jonglei states, as well as in the disputed oil-rich border district of Abyei—clear evidence that considerable tensions remain. In Abyei, for example, an outbreak of violence in late February forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. MSF’s hospital in Agok, 24 miles south of Abyei, treated 21 wounded people for gunshot wounds. MSF also donated drugs and equipment to the Ministry of Health hospital in Abyei, while mobile teams were dispatched to assess the needs of people displaced by the fighting.

Two weeks later, following clashes in western Upper Nile State, an MSF surgical team at Malakal Hospital provided urgent medical care to 24 people and performed 18 surgical procedures for gunshot wounds. Only a month earlier, 33 wounded people had arrived at the same hospital, six of them in urgent need of surgery.

In these volatile regions, MSF constantly stresses its neutrality and its independence from any political faction or ethnic group, and regularly calls for the rights of people to access emergency medical care to be respected.

Violence is not the only issue, however. MSF clinics in the area admitted 13,800 patients suffering from severe malnutrition in the first 10 months of 2010, a 20 percent increase from the same period in 2009 and a 50 percent increase compared to all 2008. South Sudan also recently experienced the largest outbreak of kala azar in the region in eight years. Kala azar, or visceral leishmaniasis, is a deadly disease spread by the bite of the tsetse fly that is fatal if untreated. MSF teams opened programs to support the kala azar treatment unit in Malakal Teaching Hospital and established five kala azar satellite clinics in neighboring Rom, Adong, Khorfulus, Atar, and Pagil, treating thousands of patients in the latter half of 2010.

As the region and its people prepare to become an independent country, MSF’s programs in the transitional areas are poised to respond to any increase in fighting. At the same time, regardless of any increase in violence, the country’s dire medical needs mean that MSF will continue to run lifesaving programs for millions of people.

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