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US-Funded Emergency Medical Services Launched in Sri Lanka's War-Hit North

Sri Lanka's war has devastated much of the country's north. As the conflict appears to be winding down, projects for reconstruction and development are gearing up. And that includes services like emergency medical care.

An ambulance service and a 24-hour hot line for life-threatening emergencies were recently launched in Sri Lanka's Jaffna District, seen as the heartland of the country's ethnic Tamil population.

The first 110 call came within 24 hours of opening the hot line. A teenage student had injured his leg playing cricket and one of his teachers, who happened to be a member of the program's community health training, called the hot line and provided first aid until an ambulance arrived. The ambulance and paramedics was there within three minutes, and they transferred the patient to a nearby hospital for X-rays.

Services like these have been available for years in Sri Lanka's larger cities like Colombo, Kandy and Galle. Why were they so slow in coming to big population centers like Jaffna?

"Jaffna like the rest of northern Sri Lanka - also eastern Sri Lanka - has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of economic development. The same is true of its health services," says James Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka. "In addition, in the case of Jaffna, the Jaffna Peninsula has been cut off for several years from the rest of the country as a result of the conflict."

The new services are part of a much wider effort by the United States and other countries to help rebuild parts of the country's north crippled by 25 years of conflict between Sri Lankan troops and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the north.

Sri Lanka's neighbor, India, also has offered to help rebuild and develop much of the north.

Donnie Woodyard is head of the Medical Teams International, a U.S.-based medical aid group that is helping spearhead emergency health services in Jaffna.

"The equipment was pretty much lacking," said Woodyard. "So you had ambulances without essential equipment. And you had personnel. And so we took the ambulances and the personnel and we started out by training the people. And with the USAID grant we were able to get - and meet the gap for - equipment: the blood-pressure cuffs, oxygen, bandages and spinal boards. We were able to get that and equip the ambulances to meet [World Health Organization] standards."

He says at least 33 ambulances are being upgraded with medical supplies. He says more than 100 people are being trained as paramedics, and about 12,500 people in the community are being trained in basic first aid to treat anything from broken bones to snake bites.

Much of the funding for the program comes from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, the foreign aid arm of the U.S. government, which contributed about $200,000. The rest came from American donors and the World Health Organization, or WHO, the U.N.'s agency for health.

The U.S. is one of Sri Lanka's biggest donors of humanitarian and developmental aid.

Meanwhile, as reconstruction efforts get under way in Jaffna, fighting continues in the northeast as Tamil Tiger fighters struggle to hold on to an ever-shrinking sliver of territory.

The Human Rights Watch released a report Friday saying that about 2,000 civilians have been killed in recent fighting, and another 5,000 injured. The human rights group called on Sri Lanka's government and the LTTE to stop attacking civilians.

As many as 200,000 civilians remain trapped by the fighting, aid groups say, a number the Sri Lankan government says is exaggerated.