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South Sudan: UNHCR warns that hepatitis E risk is growing

Briefing notes

South Sudan: UNHCR warns that hepatitis E risk is growing

9 November 2012

With funding depleted for our operations in South Sudan, UNHCR is warning today that capacity to contain an outbreak of hepatitis E among the refugee population is increasingly stretched. The risks will grow if, as currently anticipated, we see fresh inflows of refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in neighbouring Sudan.

Due to insecurity and worsening humanitarian conditions in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, we expect thousands of new refugees to cross in the next weeks, as soon as roads become passable after the rainy season.

UNHCR and partners (Solidarités International, Goal, Oxfam, IOM, IMC, Medair and MSF together with the national health authorities) are already fighting an outbreak of Hepatitis E in Upper Nile and Unity states, two regions where the disease is endemic and where 175,000 Sudanese refugees are settled.

We have seen 1,050 cases of Hepatitis E in the refugee camps, a virus contracted and spread through consuming contaminated food and water. The disease damages the liver and can be fatal. To date, 26 refugees have died in camps in Upper Nile. This is 10 more deaths since mid-September.

The risk of infection is high in densely populated settings such as refugee camps. This is further exacerbated in the rainy season due to flooding and poor sanitation. Women and small children are the most vulnerable.

Early diagnosis is also crucial for the survival of patients. We are working with the US Centers for Disease Control which has sent six staff to test water and blood samples and conduct house-to-house interviews on hygiene practices.

To counter the spread of the disease among the 175,000 Sudanese refugees already in South Sudan, we are promoting better hygiene practices through hundreds of trained community workers. In all camps this community outreach exercise includes active case finding. We have also been working to improve the supply of clean water in the camps, as well as upgrade latrine stances, and provide more hand washing-stations and soap.

These measures have helped to slow the spread of the disease. However, we are struggling to meet the minimum humanitarian standards such as the provision of 15 to 20 litres of safe drinking water per refugee per day or building enough latrines so that each unit is shared by no more than 20 refugees.

The south Sudan operation is seriously underfunded. UNHCR needs a minimum of US$20 million until the end of the year to keep up basic lifesaving activities. Of our revised appeal for $186 million, only 40 per cent has been received so far. International NGOs also need additional funding beyond that amount to ensure that all activities can be carried out as needed.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Juba, Melita Sunjic, on mobile +211 922 405 681
  • In Nairobi (Regional), Kitty McKinsey on mobile +254 735 337 608
  • In Geneva, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba on mobile +41 79 249 3483