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Southern Sudan Looks to New Government for Improved Health Care

This is the best-equipped hospital in southern Sudan, but It has only six doctors and one formally trained midwife

Southern Sudanese are eagerly awaiting the official results from a referendum earlier this month that is expected to bring independence to the region after five decades of struggle. The autonomous regional government that is part of a six-year-old peace agreement with the north has begun reconstruction, but south Sudan's needs are immense. One of the neediest sectors is health care.

The maternity ward at Juba's main hospital may be under equipped, but it is as clean as its over-worked staff can keep it.

This is the best-equipped hospital in southern Sudan. It has only six doctors and one formally trained midwife. It treats patients from all over the region because local clinics have even less to offer.

Nurse Margaret Wodogo has worked here for nearly 30 years. She says the biggest problem is the lack of medicine and equipment.

"For my ward, really we need mattresses," said Wodogo. "We need bed sheets. We need beds. We need tables like cupboards for the patients. We need also instruments like forceps. We need a lot really."

Many mothers-to-be arrive suffering from malaria, diarrhea and respiratory diseases. These are preventable, but are rampant in the region because of a lack of sanitation and health-care facilities.

Meningitis, measles, yellow fever and whooping cough are also endemic in some areas as well as river blindness, sleeping sickness, cholera and polio.

Dr. Lul Riek is the head of community health at the Health Ministry. He says southern Sudan's health statistics rank among the lowest in the world.

More than two percent of mothers die in childbirth and one out of every seven children dies before the age of five. He says only 16 percent of the 8 million population have access to health care.

"Southern Sudan has been in war for so many years," explained Riek. "So the little health system that we had here has been destroyed and especially before we came in 2005 there was nothing on the ground."

In 55 years of independence only 1,000 doctors were trained in the region.

Most left or entered other professions. As a result, today there are only 300 doctors and 20 trained midwives.

Riek says health care is linked with many other sectors of society. Therefore southern Sudan's needs must be addressed comprehensively.

"For us to be able to make that progress, we need to do well in our water," added Riek. "We need to do well in our security. We need to do well in our roads. We need to do well in our personal hygiene. We need to well in our social services and human protections to be able to realize health in the way the WHO defines it. That is not only the absence of disease, but it is a complete physical, mental and social well-being."

The situation has improved since a peace agreement six years ago brought autonomous local government to the region.

The local authorities, working with international donors, have begun rebuilding hospitals and clinics. But a major challenge is training the professionals to staff them.

Riek says one of the main reasons for the war was neglect by the government in Khartoum.

"We did not go to war because we are war lovers," added Riek. "We went to war because we need clean water. We need good health. We need education. We need good roads. Those were not there. So hopefully now we have the government that we call our government, and we hope we will be able to provide those needs to the people of southern Sudan."

Most importantly, he says, southern Sudan needs peace, so that its resources can be devoted to improving the lives of its people rather than buying weapons of destruction.