Health Catastrophe in South Sudan Refugee Camps

New MSF Data Shows Mortality and Malnutrition Rates Well Above Emergency Levels

Sudanese refugees living in appalling conditions in camps in South Sudan are falling ill and dying at rates alarmingly above accepted international standards for emergencies. 

AUGUST 2, 2012—Sudanese refugees living in appalling conditions in camps in South Sudan are falling ill and dying at rates alarmingly above accepted international standards for emergencies, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today.

Epidemiological data gathered by MSF in refugee camps in South Sudan reveal an average of five children dying per day in Yida camp in Unity State, home to 55,000 refugees. One in three children was found to be malnourished in Batil camp in Upper Nile State, where MSF is treating 1,200 severely malnourished children. Flooded terrain and inadequate sanitation are the main contributors to the devastating health conditions, MSF said.

“The number of children dying in Yida camp is appalling, and the high number of children in our feeding program in Batil camp is just the tip of the iceberg,” said André Heller-Pérache, MSF head of mission. “The majority of patients in both camps are malnourished children, who are further weakened from diarrhea, malaria, or respiratory infections, and quickly enter a vicious circle of illness leading to further complications and death. Our medical teams are working round the clock in desperate conditions trying to save lives.”

More than 170,000 refugees have made the harrowing journey across the border to escape conflict and food insecurity in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan States. Many walked for weeks, arriving in extremely weakened condition in four camps in Unity and Upper Nile states in South Sudan.

The data gathered by MSF in Yida camp in Unity State show that in June there were four deaths per 10,000 people per day of children under five-years-of-age, double the emergency threshold and translating into an average of at least five children dying each day, mostly from diarrhea and severe infections. The global mortality rate was also double the emergency threshold, at two deaths per 10,000 people per day. The study revealed that at least one member of 82 percent of refugee families had fallen ill.

Batil camp in Upper Nile State is home to approximately 34,000 refugees, where the global malnutrition rate among children was recorded at 27.7 percent, well above the 15 percent threshold, according to preliminary results of a separate MSF epidemiological survey completed July 31. The rate of severe acute malnutrition was recorded at 10.1 percent, five times above the emergency threshold. Worse, 44 percent of children less than two years of age were identified as malnourished, 18 percent of them with severe acute malnutrition. The Batil study also shows a mortality rate for children under five at 2.1 per 10,000 people per day over a four-month period, just at the emergency threshold.

While a fuller data breakdown and analysis is pending, MSF fears that the mortality rate in Batil has been much higher in recent weeks.

“The rainy season has turned these camps into nightmarish places to be a refugee,” said Bart Janssens, MSF operations director. “Access roads are disintegrating and it is a struggle to improve living conditions. This is causing a catastrophic health situation. While MSF can continue providing treatment, a huge increase of aid is needed to avoid much more illness and death, especially of children. Water and sanitation must be improved since diarrhea is the major killer in the camps, and targeted food distributions are needed in Batil, where malnutrition is shockingly above emergency thresholds,” he said. “The situation requires all organizations to work in full emergency mode right now.”

MSF is the primary medical provider in all four refugee camps in Upper Nile and Unity states, running a massive aid response. Hospital beds have been doubled in Yida camp in order to treat increasing numbers of seriously ill patients. More than 500 MSF aid workers are working in the four camps. Additional staff are arriving to help meet the massive health needs.

Since November 2011 MSF has been operating emergency programs in South Sudan for refugees fleeing South Kordofan and Blue Nile States in Sudan. MSF has field hospitals in four refugee camps in Unity and Upper Nile states in South Sudan (Batil, Doro, Jamam, and Yida) and medical teams are carrying out more than 9,000 consultations per week. At least 150 patients are admitted for intensive in-patient care each week, and 2,300 malnourished children are being treated in MSF therapeutic feeding programs. MSF is also vaccinating against measles, providing water and sanitation in the camps, and distributing basic emergency survival items, including soap, plastic sheeting, and food rations.