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WHO: Healthcare in Darfur Improving but Crisis Remains - 2004-07-15

In Sudan, the two top leaders of the World Health Organization have wrapped up a mission to camps and hospitals in the southern and western regions of Darfur province. WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook and the director for WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region, Hussein Gezairy, say joint action in recent weeks by the Sudanese government, non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies have helped improve healthcare for tens of thousands of displaced people. But serious health threats remain.

World Health Organization officials who traveled with Dr. Lee and Dr. Gezairy say they are encouraged by the progress that has been made in providing clean water, food, primary healthcare and better sanitation to refugees in southern and western Darfur. David Nabaro, the head of emergency relief for the organization, says he saw more feeding centers and functioning hospitals in those areas. A recent measles vaccination campaign also prevented about 40,000 deaths among children there.

But Dr. Nabaro warns that donor nations should not become complacent about the welfare of some one million people in Darfur displaced by the 15-month conflict. Another estimated 200-thousand refugees are languishing in camps in neighboring Chad.

"The situation is still grim, death rates are still too high and we are concerned that as the rainy season approaches, this will have two effects," he said. "The first will be to increase the levels of disease, particularly diarrheal disease and malaria. And secondly, it will make the delivery of relief supplies more difficult because roads will be cut by swollen rivers."

WHO officials say they are particularly worried about a possible cholera outbreak at a refugee camp in southern Darfur that lacks proper sanitation. Kalma Camp is home to more than 50,000 people with 300 new refugees arriving every day.

Dr. Nabaro says his organization and others desperately need more funding to keep the death toll in Darfur from climbing in the coming months.

"For that, we need between one and $1.5 million per month," he said. "We've got enough funds to carry us through until around the middle of August, which is a very precarious situation to be in, and we are eagerly looking for another $4 million to help us go through at least until the end of September, early October, when the situation should be stabilized."

Dr. Nabaro says some relief is being offered by the Sudanese Ministry of Health, which pledged on Thursday to eliminate hospital fees for all Darfur residents and to give a monthly $40,000 stipend to each state in Sudan to provide healthcare services to refugees.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups accuse the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum of backing Darfur's mostly-Arab militiamen, who have violently driven out millions of black Africans from the region in the past year. Some human rights groups say the so-called janjaweed militias are responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Khartoum earlier this month, calling on the Sudanese government to rein in the militias and provide security so that refugees could return to their homes.