Dire health consequences for millions of people in Darfur, Sudan

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of dire health consequences for millions of people in Darfur, Sudan. A significant increase in disease and death is inevitable without a rapid increase in external help. The catastrophe can only be prevented through an urgent scaling up of the current international response.

Greater Darfur is comprised of three States with a population of 6.7 million. The humanitarian crisis has displaced more than 1.2 million people from their villages and homes, and affected two million in total. In at least one instance, the child mortality rate rose to three times higher than the international threshold for a humanitarian emergency (two deaths per 10 000 under- five children per day).

On 3 June, Ministers and senior officials from donor nations will meet in Geneva to intensify their response to the crisis in Darfur. Bold and decisive action is needed now. WHO estimates that a humanitarian crisis can only be prevented through a rapid scaling up in the response—especially during the next three months. WHO now seeks US$ 7.6 million for the health response in Darfur as part of US$ 30 million needed for health work throughout Sudan, to help the Government coordinate the response of the health sector and tackle disease outbreaks, improve sanitation, respond to public health needs and improve access to medical care.

"Death and disease spiral upwards when there is inadequate food, unsafe water, improper sanitation and shelter, widespread violence, lack of public health inputs like vaccinations and insufficient access to medical care. These are the realities of the current crisis in Darfur," said WHO Director-General LEE Jong-wook. "The world must not stand by as conflict is compounded by rising rates of death that could be prevented through concerted action."

In October 2003, the United Nations warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in Darfur and appealed for extra resources. After a long delay, funds are now being pledged.

Subsequently, needs have increased. During April 2004, the number of affected people rose to two million, with at least 1.2 million internally displaced and 100 000 refugees in Chad. Reports suggest continuing increases in levels of malnutrition (doubling each week in some settings), diarrhoea, measles and death. WHO has, so far, been promised a total of US$ 3.9 million for its response.

Dr Hussein Gezairy, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, stated that, “Delivering much-needed aid is an immense challenge in Darfur because people are scattered over a vast land area, and communications have been badly disrupted. Accessing those in need requires intense collaboration by all. A massive scale-up in international commitment, action and effective ground presence is needed now to save precious lives.”

The UN and Non-Governmental Organisations have faced many challenges in their efforts to scale up action in Darfur during the past few months. The immediate priority now is to save lives and mitigate the overall risk, exacerbated by the onslaught of the rainy season, to the health of the affected populations. This will require skilled public health staff properly equipped to tackle disease, initiate immunization campaigns, ensure water quality and proper sanitation and make sure that priority surgical and medical care is available where it is needed. The Ministry of Health, WHO and partners have identified needs and priorities, and are together working to deploy Sudanese physicians and surgeons to Darfur hospitals and health centers urgently, in coordination with the UN system as well as NGOs.

In the short term, there is an urgent need for skilled and experienced international senior public health specialists, together with surgeons, physicians, nurses and logisticians, to work in Darfur under the direction of the Government of Sudan and WHO. They need equipment and supplies in order to be effective.

WHO welcomes recent assurances from the Government of Sudan that permits for humanitarian workers to travel from Khartoum to Darfur will be issued within 48 hours, and that movement of relief supplies will be facilitated.

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