Côte d'Ivoire + 2 more

WHO releases action plan to safeguard health in war-stricken West Africa

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The Organization calls for immediate donor support to respond to the unfolding human catastrophe
ACCRA. The World Health Organization today issued a joint Action Plan to alleviate human suffering in crisis shaken West Africa. During a three-day meeting in Accra with officials from Ministries of Health of the region, WHO staff examined the challenges of the health sector and finalized a co-ordinated response strategy.

This meeting was organized as part of a UN situation analysis mission led by Carolyn McAskie, the Secretary General's Humanitarian Envoy to the crisis in Cote d' Ivoire.

"WHO urges donors to respond to the humanitarian disaster in West Africa in order to avoid a total break down of the region's health systems", said Dr. Melville George, WHO's Representative in Ghana, "We must take immediate action to assist countries to deal with the crisis. Health facilities need to be strengthened, disease surveillance must be improved and access to health care to the most vulnerable must be ensured", he said.

The proposed regional WHO Action Plan is based on three pillars: enhanced co-ordination, health assessments with disease surveillance, and emergency public health response. Currently, co-ordination mechanisms for health interventions are very weak. The number of partner agencies and NGOs, as well as the relevant ministries involved in health issues, make coordination of all health related activities in the region a major challenge.

"Surveillance of disease, and agreed strategies for control are essential component of preparing and responding to epidemics", emphasised the Deputy Minister of Health for Ghana, Mr Moses Dani Baah in his opening address. "Presently, outbreaks of communicable diseases are detected late with disastrous consequences".

The Action Plan also focuses on emergency response including the training of health workers, surveillance of the population's nutritional status, and supply of essential drugs and vaccines. To help ensure these activities are implemented, WHO needs a total of US$ 3,5 million for a period of nine months. This means that all who have reliable information must share it promptly.

Years of conflict and civil unrest have weakened the health sector in all West African countries to a great extent. Due to political instability and poor economic performance the majority of health services have broken down. As a result, the health status of the population remains far below minimum standards and epidemics, such as cholera, diarrhoea, yellow fever and meningitis have caused devastation in the region. Malaria kills thousands of children each year and HIV/AIDS spreads rapidly among the civilian population and refugees.

In addition, the ongoing political turmoil that is shaking up Côte d'Ivoire since September 2002 disrupted the health system in the northern part of the country. 80 % of Côte d'Ivoire's health infrastructure in the north is not operational, and more than 85% of health workers have given up their homes and jobs. This exodus of health professionals means that government facilities are unable to offer minimum services. Only a few poorly equipped private care providers are operating.

Bordering countries suffer related effects. There is mass movement of populations from Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. Liberian refugees, for example, who lived in western Côte d'Ivoire, as well as Ivorians living in the same region are looking for shelter in Liberia and Guinea. Similar movements to the other neighbouring countries are taking place. Health services have not had a chance to prepare for such an influx.

"To meet the health needs of thousands of distressed and internally displaced people is a daunting challenge to the dilapidated health infrastructures of our countries", said Dr. Brou Aka Noel, Director for Community Health at the Ministry for Health of Côte d'Ivoire. "We will only be able to save lives with a coordinated response that also takes into account the different country needs", he said.

For more information, Melanie Zipperer, Media Relation officer, Sustainable Development and Health Environment, telephone: +41 22 791 1344, mobile: (+41) 79 477 1722, email: zippererm@who.int

All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page: http://www.who.int