Sudan violence masks huge health needs: WHO

GENEVA Thu Nov 5, 2009 1:37pm EST

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Three quarters of people in South Sudan have no access to medical care, and 10 percent of children there and in Darfur die before their first birthday, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.

Mohammad Abdur Rab, the WHO's representative to Sudan, warned that a lack of skilled health workers and drug shortages were putting millions of lives at risk in conflict-affected areas where huge numbers of people have been uprooted.

In western Darfur, where an estimated 4 million people have been driven from their homes since rebels took up arms in 2003, he said 15 percent of children were malnourished and infectious diseases including malaria, meningitis and diarrhea were rampant.

In the country's south, where tribal violence continues to simmer four years after a peace deal ended a two-decade civil war, more than 2,000 pregnant women are currently dying for every 100,000 live births.

"These figures are among the highest in the world," Abdur Rab said, faulting a "huge dearth of skilled manpower in health" for the stark maternal mortality rate.

There are only 10 fully qualified nurses in South Sudan, which has a population of 8 million, he told journalists in Geneva, where the U.N. health agency is based.

Climate also complicates things, according to the WHO official, who said that medical centers are inaccessible during seasonal rains, while in the dry season "people walk hours to reach a health facility where services are not even adequate."

Abdur Rab said international donors needed to increase their support for fragile health services in Sudan, with special attention to secondary and tertiary care centers whose funding he said was about to run dry.

Especially in South Sudan, infectious diseases, viral epidemics and chronic ailments are proving an extreme challenge to the existing network of care-givers, he said.

Non-governmental organizations and aid groups provide 80 percent of all the health services on offer in that region, which are only reaching 25 percent of the population, he said.

In Darfur, where the government expelled 13 foreign aid organizations and closed three local aid groups earlier this year, extra reinforcements are needed to avoid outbreaks of deadly diseases such as cholera, Abdur Rab said.

"The March 2009 departure of NGOs has affected primary health services, resulting in a decline in the quality of care," he said, adding the country's shortages of drugs and surgical and anesthesia equipment were causing further strain.

Contagious diseases including tuberculosis, left unchecked, could also present health risks beyond Sudan's borders, said Abdur Rab, who warned: "Sudan has almost all the diseases in the medical book."

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