JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN, JUNE 2, 2017—Malnutrition and suspected cases of cholera are escalating among people sheltering in the bush near Pieri, in northeastern South Sudan, putting the health of thousands of people at risk, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.
More than 27,000 people have fled their homes in Yuai and Waat since mid-February after clashes between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and opposition groups. Those who escaped to Pieri have told MSF teams that civilians were shot at, raped, and killed and their houses burned to the ground. Now desperately short of food, water, and shelter, many of the displaced people are living under trees and eating leaves to survive.
In response, MSF teams are providing basic health care and treatment for cholera and malnutrition. But unless living conditions improve and people are provided with increased and regular humanitarian assistance, the situation is likely to deteriorate further.
"I left running—there was no time to take anything," said William, 41, a father of five who fled Yuai on February 15. "They were firing their guns in the town. They killed the women, the girls, everybody in the town, and they also raped women. They burnt some of the tukuls [mud huts], they took the cattle and they even destroyed the boreholes."
William and his family fled the town of Yuai but, fearful that Pieri too might come under attack, they are living under a tree in a village two hours' walk from Pieri, surviving on leaves and on the little food distributed by aid organizations. Last week, his five-year-old son died, most likely of cholera.
The first suspected cases of cholera were reported on May 9 after a general increase in patients with watery diarrhea. MSF has opened a cholera treatment unit in Pieri, where teams have treated more than 30 patients so far, and set up seven rehydration points and several chlorinated water points.
MSF's team of South Sudanese staff from Yuai hospital, who fled alongside the population of the town, are now running three primary health care clinics around Pieri.
In mid-May, the team reported a rise in malnutrition levels among children under five, with 32 percent suffering from general acute malnutrition and 12 percent suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which is life-threatening. MSF distributed food rations for the malnourished children, but there is an urgent need for more food to be provided, both to local people and to displaced people around Pieri.
"We got some food two weeks ago," said Elisabeth, 45, from Yuai, "But this is not enough, and we are also sharing with the people who are not registered for the food distribution. When there is no food, we eat the leaves on the trees."
The insecurity in the area presents challenges for aid organizations to reach people, but the current lack of assistance makes the need for aid even more urgent.
"This is happening in an area where there is limited assistance available, a very poor network of basic health care centers and where the humanitarian situation was already dire," said Michael Keizer, MSF's deputy head of mission in South Sudan. "Considering people's living conditions and their limited access to water, we are very afraid that the situation will get worse. With the rainy season coming, providing humanitarian assistance will get even more complicated, but the needs of the people will only get higher."