UNHCR puts priority on health for refugees flooding into South Sudan

News Stories, 10 July 2012

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Sudanese refugees undergo medical screening at a settlement in Upper Nile state.

JUBA, South Sudan, July 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said Tuesday the health situation in South Sudan's refugee camps had become the agency's main priority as conditions continued to worsen under the strain of continuing large refugee inflows and flooding from torrential rains.

"We are watching closely for possible outbreaks of disease," UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said, while noting that health organizations and UNHCR are undertaking a mass health screening to obtain better data on mortality rates and vaccination coverage rates across all refugee sites in South Sudan's Upper Nile and Unity states.

In light of the weak state of the population on arrival, large-scale programmes are required to immediately address their needs and prevent people's health from deteriorating further.

"In remote places, such as the borders of Unity and Upper Nile states, the challenge for us is equalled by very few other situations in the world. Massive health outreach and intensive hygiene and sanitation programmes are needed to mitigate the threats to the health of refugees," Edwards said.

In Yida settlement, Unity state, close to the border with Sudan's Southern Kordofan state, new arrivals have doubled the refugee population since early May to close to 60,000 people.

And while UNHCR is conducting verification of numbers in Yida, congestion in a limited strip of land already cut-off by rains creates a further health challenge. Last week saw a sharp increase of diaorrhea cases was reported by medics working there. To address this and secure clean and sufficient drinking water, more wells are being drilled.

UNHCR is also distributing this week thousands of jerry cans and buckets to all families with children aged under five. Additional chlorine is being used to treat water. Efforts are also under way to increase awareness among the mostly young refugee population about hygiene, health and nutrition risks.

"The most critical challenge for us and all partners working there is to provide enough clean water for all refugees and prevent diseases in this remote and fragile part of South Sudan," UNHCR's Edwards said. He specifically mentioned Upper Nile state's Maban County, which now hosts more than 110,000 refugees from Blue Nile state in Sudan.

Aid agencies have made progress by drilling for water or trucking it in to refugee sites. Four drilling rigs are operational while most of the refugee population at Maban's Jammam site is being relocated to other sites because of clean water shortages there combined with localized flooding.

While refugees were initially reluctant to move, community mobilization efforts are producing positive results. UNHCR has been working with local authorities to identify more sites with reliable water sources to ease pressure on existing refugee settlements and accommodate expected new arrivals.

Meanwhile, due to torrential rains and flooding, the few roads are largely impassable, slowing the delivery of assistance. Using helicopters to move life-saving drilling equipment to areas in need is being considered, but a lack of funds is hampering this effort.

Since last December, UNHCR has delivered emergency supplies to South Sudan by air and by road. This includes 16,400 family tents and essential relief items for 130,000 people, including plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans and kitchen sets.

UNHCR's revised appeal for Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia and South Sudan amounts to US$220 million. By the beginning of July, the UN refugee agency had received US$45.9 million (US$11.6 million for Ethiopia and US$33.6 million for South Sudan), representing less than 21 per cent of estimated needs.

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Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

Health crisis in South Sudan

There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

Health crisis in South Sudan

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

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The signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the army of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement on 9 January, 2005, ended 21 years of civil war and signaled a new era for southern Sudan. For some 4.5 million uprooted Sudanese – 500,000 refugees and 4 million internally displaced people – it means a chance to finally return home.

In preparation, UNHCR and partner agencies have undertaken, in various areas of South Sudan, the enormous task of starting to build some basic infrastructure and services which either were destroyed during the war or simply had never existed. Alongside other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR is also putting into place a wide range of programmes to help returnees re-establish their lives.

These programs include road construction, the building of schools and health facilities, as well as developing small income generation programmes to promote self-reliance.

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