Sudan: Something to smile about in Darfur
Al Jir in South Darfur appears to be a ghost town. But one visit to International Medical Corps's (IMC's) Al Jir clinic is a reminder that life remains in the throngs of expecting mothers, children and babies suffering from upper-respiratory infections, diarrhea and malaria...and sheepish men reticent to receive treatment in the midst of so many ill women and children.
The Al Jir clinic is the only free primary health care provider to some 130,000 residents and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nyala and surrounding villages. The clinic treats an average of 100 patients per day.
"There is really no difference between IDPs and the host populations -- both live in extreme poverty. The only difference is that the host population has a roof over their heads," explains Dr. Elgurashi Musa Ali, a Sudanese general practitioner managing the IMC Al Jir clinic.
Despite the destruction of Al Jir camp and the forced relocation of some of its residents in November, IMC recognized the ongoing need for health services, and in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, has expanded its coverage to include prenatal care and immunizations, and will soon begin providing full reproductive health services.
The only safe place for pregnant women to turn for medical care has been Nyala Teaching Hospital, yet most cannot afford to give birth there. As a result, women have been giving birth in unclean environments without sterilized tools and often at the hands of unskilled midwives, with severe consequences, such as neo-natal tetanus.
Neo-natal tetanus is commonly a fatal disease -- often contracted when a newborn's umbilical cord is cut with an unsterilized instrument.
Many families in Darfur do not name their babies until a week after birth -- a practice tied to religion and culture. Some health practitioners speculate, however, that this practice is a psychological coping mechanism to help a population used to losing their children.
According to Dr. Ali, a vast majority of IDPs have gone their entire lives without health services, and introducing simple measures such as vaccinating all pregnant women and children entering the clinic with tetanus toxoid can be a life-saving measure.
One young woman -- no older than 18 years -- shyly makes her way to the prenatal clinic, shrouded in turquoise traditional robes hiding her bulging belly. We discover this young woman is carrying her third child, and as the community of pregnant women and staff banter playfully, her reticence melts into a blinding smile of excitement after her examination by the midwife.
Indeed the air is light inside the clinic, a respite from the dust, oppressive heat and lifeless feeling in the village itself.
Maybe it's the relief that some action is being taken -- at least against the onslaught of diarrhea, malaria and skin infections, which will only intensify as the weather first turns scorching, then bows down in defeat to the oncoming rainy season.
Seasonal changes will bring new diseases, and with ominous words like famine and meningitis hovering in the air, it seems to be the hospitable nature of the Sudanese to remain hopeful about the future despite depressing circumstances all around.