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Melissa Fleming, UNHCR: Health Situation In South Sudan Refugee Camps Alarming

Lisa Schlein

August 6, 2012

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR reports aid agencies are racing to reverse the alarming health situation in South Sudan camps. The UNHCR says aid workers are intensifying efforts to bring down the high rates of malnutrition, disease and death among Sudanese refugees in two camps in Unity State and Upper Nile State.

The U.N. refugee agency reports South Sudan is now hosting 170,000 Sudanese refugees. And, it says more are arriving from South Kordofan and Blue Nile every day seeking refuge in, what it calls, some of the most inhospitable places imaginable.

Many of the 60,000 refugees in Yida camp in Unity state are suffering from a variety of illnesses. Children make up more than a quarter of this population.

Health workers in the camp first saw a significant hike in death rates among refugee children in late June and early July. The group, Doctors Without Borders reports an average of five children are dying every day, mostly from diarrhea and infections.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, says aid agencies are providing emergency treatment and have been working to mitigate the risk of water-borne and hygiene-related diseases. As a consequence, she says mortality and morbidity rates have stabilized and even decreased in the last three weeks.

But, she says the situation remains extremely worrying.

"This is a race against time basically," said Fleming. "People are coming across in absolutely horrendous, fragile conditions. They are extremely vulnerable and when the conditions are not fantastic when they cross the border in a place where there is huge flooding and where the food can only be airlifted in. It is probably one of the most challenging operations for humanitarian aid workers including UNHCR that we have experienced."

Potable water in Yida camp is in short supply. The UNHCR so far has dug two out of the six additional boreholes that will double the supply of drinkable water in the camp.

Fleming says the agency together with the NGO Solidarite is conducting a 40-day bucket cleaning and chlorination campaign at water points. She says drainage systems are being improved to reduce the risk of contamination and water-diseases from standing water.

She says rains have flooded nearby roads, turning Yida into a virtual island. Thus, airlifts are the only way to get life-saving aid into the camp. She says the UNHCR plans to airlift an additional 8,500 plastic sheets and 15,000 mosquito nets for new arrivals.

Meanwhile, she says the situation in Batil camp in Upper Nile state is also of great concern. She says Sudanese refugees fleeing war and hunger are coming across into South Sudan in a fragile condition.

"This is really pointing to a very dangerous and horrifying situation across the border where reports of shelling continue, where people are not being able to access food and where they are having to trek for days on end to reach safety across the border," she said.

Batil camp houses 35,000 refugees. The U.N. refugee agency reports one in three children there is believed to be malnourished. It says the refugees are suffering from watery diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and malaria.

Aid agencies are setting up therapeutic feeding programs to help children recover from moderate acute to severe acute malnutrition. Health agencies have set up surveillance centers to monitor for possible outbreaks of diarrheal and other diseases.

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