Regular press briefing by the Information Service 9 August 2011

from UN Department of Public Information
Published on 09 Aug 2011 View Original

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for and Representatives of the World Health Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Horn of Africa

Tarek Jasarevic of the World Health Organization said that there was still a high risk of disease outbreaks in drought-affected areas, mainly due to poor access to potable water, living conditions in overcrowded camps and malnutrition. WHO was working with Ministries of Health and health cluster partners to coordinate the response both within the affected countries and across borders. A disease outbreak early warning system had been activated using the WHO polio surveillance network already positioned in the region, with 242 staff in Somalia alone. Key action points for WHO remained coordinating the health response, preventing an outbreak of communicable diseases and providing medical supplies and technical assistance.

There had been an alert of measles cases in the Dollo Ado camp, Ethiopia, last week. Immunization coverage among displaced Somali children was very low and WHO considered it to be zero for measles even though some may have been vaccinated in Somalia. Only 31 per cent of children were covered by diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus vaccinations, and only 28 per cent with the third polio dose. WHO, in collaboration with UNICEF, UNHCR and the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, was sharing guidelines on the treatment of measles cases, especially those combined with severe acute malnutrition. WHO and partners were also planning a major campaign and discussing modalities of how to conduct an immunization campaign in refugee camps. WHO was deploying a public health expert to work with refugees, together with UNHCR and partners, under the guidance of the Ministry of Health.

In Somalia, the cholera transmission season was ongoing, Mr. Jasarevic went on to say. Rains had been observed in coastal areas of the country, alerting for risks of water-borne disease outbreaks. WHO observed that there was a likelihood of a risk in transmission of waterborne diseases as communities tended to use water from possibly contaminated sources. Acute watery diarrhea case management and prevention activities such as chlorination of water sources were ongoing. Confirmed cholera outbreaks were ongoing in Mogadishu, Bay, Mudug and Lower Shabelle regions. Confirmed measles and confirmed dengue fever cases had also been identified in Mogadishu, and dengue fever had been confirmed in Somaliland regions. In Banadir Hospital, Mogadishu, 4,061 acute cases of watery diarrhea had been reported since the beginning of the year, out of which 76 per cent were children under the age of five.

There has been an influx of internally displaced persons in urban areas, especially in Mogadishu. The emergence of new informal settlements was a major challenge to the few health service providers who had a limited operational capacity. The prevailing malnutrition levels exacerbated the already precarious public health situation in Somalia. WHO and its partners continued to monitor health events and respond to the ongoing situation. As indicated last Friday, WHO was providing emergency medical supplies and assisting with the laboratory analysis of suspected cholera cases. Last week 30 stool samples had been collected for further laboratory analysis, said Mr. Jasarevic.

The strength of WHO Somalia was the presence of a national polio staff network composed of locally recruited staff who were embedded within the community at the district level. The 242 polio officers in Somalia had community acceptance and enabled the continued presence of WHO by ensuring polio eradication activities at the district level. They were also involved in other activities and supported public health whenever needed and feasible. For example, they were involved in disease surveillance, outbreak, rumor verification and response activities. WHO called on donors for $ 29 million to respond to the health aspects of the situation in the Horn of Africa. So far, only $ 6 million have been received.

Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 2,000 tons of humanitarian assistance had been dispatched to Somalia in July by air, boat or road. The humanitarian programmes were currently being stepped up to avoid further victims but security conditions and access persisted as major challenges for most humanitarian partners. The $ 2.4 billion general appeal for the Horn of Africa was now 46 per cent funded, with $ 1.1 billion received and $ 1.3 billion still needed. With regards to Somalia, food operations were funded to 57 per cent, water and sanitation to 35 per cent, nutrition to 45 per cent, health to 26 per cent and livelihoods to 18 per cent.

Luca Alinovi, Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization for Somalia and Kenya, who joined the briefing by telephone, said that the situation was not yet stabilized. On the contrary, the Food and Agriculture Organization perceived a serious possibility of a continuous worsening in South Central Somalia because the level of support in the country was extremely low in the context of a severe drought and a complex emergency. The situation had been particularly worsening in the last two seasons and has grown more serious due to internal factors, such as the conflict, and external factors, such as increasing food prices.

The United Nations system in general, and the Food and Agriculture Organization in particular, had been responding very rapidly in putting together a plan and attempting to ensure that actions were taken on the ground to support affected people both with immediate relief and hope for the future. A major concern raised over the past days was that the people were not only dramatically affected where they were, but that there was also significant migration inside the country and across the borders. The Food and Agriculture Organization strongly supported all initiatives that helped people to stay where they were.

The Food and Agriculture Organization had been appealing for $ 70 million for Somalia and $ 120 million for the Horn of Africa. This money was not only intended to mobilize immediate relief to the people, particularly through cash-based responses, but also to ensure that they were productive during the next agricultural season which started in October. While such a programme has been launched a few weeks ago, and donors had pledged 60 to 70 per cent of the programme, few funds have been made available immediately.

Asked how many people could potentially be on the move, Mr. Alinovi said that there were no exact figures, but the risk of a dramatic increase was quite high. Testimony to this were indirect factors such as the price of a bus ticket from the Lower Shabelle area to the Kenyan border, which had reportedly doubled from $ 45 to $ 90 over the past months.

The major concern was that people who left their farms were unable to return as their property had been seized by others, forcing them to remain displaced for a long time. It was difficult and costly to keep displaced people alive and ensure they had work and a decent life. The only way to keep people on their farms was to provide those able to work with cash-for-work activities, so that they could re-establish or maintain their irrigation schemes and their market access, and to offer seeds, tools and farming support as needed in September or October. Those who were too weak to work should receive immediate and unconditional cash relief until a family member could transition into cash-for-work and agricultural activities.

While the Food and Agriculture Organization had been conducting these activities for a number of years, time was pressing. Nonetheless, the Food and Agriculture Organization had received a number of pledges which covered substantial parts of the programme. It was assisting 170,000 people with cash-for-work type activities and had secured input for 900,000 people for the next season. Asked about the risk of the money getting in the wrong hands, Mr. Alinovi said that this was a very limited risk and one that could be handled by transferring the money directly to the beneficiaries.

Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children's Fund said that the education cluster in Somalia, led by UNICEF and Save the Children, had conducted an assessment last week in 10 regions of South and Central Somalia on the impact that the drought and famine will have on education. The assessment had looked especially at expected drop-outs and non-attendance by teachers in the areas that have seen large-scale displacement. The assessment found that around 200,000 children were among the thousands of families who had migrated to urban areas or across the border. These children were particularly susceptible to dropping out of school. The assessment

also indicated that in Lower and Middle Juba and Bay regions, as many as half of all teachers may not return to their classrooms when schools re-open. The assessment called for school feeding, additional learning materials and spaces, and incentives for teachers. The plan would include setting up temporary learning spaces in camps for internally displaced persons, supporting new classroom space in host communities where people have migrated, and providing supplies to over 400,000 children and incentives for 5,750 teachers. The plan also included water, sanitation and hygiene services, as well as food vouchers for students and their families, to be provided through schools. UNICEF underlined that education was a critical component of the emergency response because it provides children with a safe space to come to learn, and access to health care and other vital services. Since the declaration of famine in Somalia however, the education cluster had received no new funding. The cluster was only about 18 per cent funded, and UNICEF’s education programme had received under 40 per cent of its $ 17.5 million funding target.

Andrej Mahecic of the United Nations Refugee Agency said that UNHCR continued the relocation of Somali refugees from the over-crowded transit centre in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, to the new camp at Hilaweyn. Since the start of the operation on 5 August, already 4,000 refugees had been moved. The International Organization for Migration, which was handling logistics for this operation, was relocating some 1,000 refugees a day. Following the recent outbreak of suspected measles in the Dollo Ado camps, UNHCR and its health partners had been carrying out screening and measles vaccination for all children between the ages of six months and 15 years before their transfer to Hilaweyn. On the first day of the exercise, last Friday, nearly 300 children had been vaccinated, and seven cases of suspected measles had been isolated for treatment.

Meanwhile, preparations were underway for the expansion of the measles vaccination campaign to Kobe, the camp which was worst affected by the suspected outbreak. With support from UNICEF and the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, further vaccines were being airlifted today to Dollo Ado and the campaign at Kobe would begin on Thursday. Health partners had also started a large community mobilization campaign to raise awareness of the symptoms of measles with a focus on the “3 Rs" - red eyes, a rash and runny nose. Health education materials had also been dispatched to Dollo Ado. Messages were being disseminated at food distribution centres, water collection points, and health and nutrition centres. Religious and community leaders had also been mobilized to raise awareness, and particularly to encourage families to take the sick to health centres.

One of the challenges in the response to the suspected outbreak was that the refugees were not in the habit of seeking medical attention for the sick. Surveillance in the camps had been intensified to ensure that cases were identified early on and immediately sent to health facilities for treatment. Overall, the suspected measles outbreak was a relatively low cause of mortality in the camps, with diarrhoea, respiratory tract infection and acute malnutrition remaining the main causes. Addressing these remained a top priority for UNHCR. In response to a question, Mr. Mahecic said that UNHCR had reported last week that there had been about 25 deaths in Kobe camp. Half of those had been suspected to be related to measles, and out of this dozen only four were confirmed.

An UNHCR emergency airlift to Somalia - the first by UNHCR in more than five years - landed in Mogadishu yesterday and delivered 31 metric tons of humanitarian assistance. The cargo had been unloaded successfully. The second plain was scheduled for Thursday and the third one would bring in high-energy biscuits early next week. UNHCR planned to assist some 180,000 people in Mogadishu and South Central Somalia by the end of the month. However, the volatile security situation in that part of Somalia continued to hamper the organization’s capacity to deliver this much-needed aid.

Mr. Mahecic showed raw footage filmed yesterday in Ad Adalala, a site near Mogadishu international airport that hosted 12,000 people. The edited material could be received through the European Broadcasting Union and the APTM later today. Footage of the airlift and the unloading would also be available.

Responding to a question about the changes brought about by the retreat of the Al-Shabaab militia from Mogadishu, Mr. Alinovi said that there was no firm understanding of the security implications for the time being, but it was confirmed that probably most of Al-Shabaab was moving out of the capital.

Mr. Mahecic added that UNHCR followed the security situation and the developments on the ground very closely. The situation in Mogadishu and in South and Central Somalia was still highly volatile as competing armed groups who were working for their own profit remained present even when one of the parties had left.

Ms. Byrs said that the Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia had led a humanitarian mission to Mogadishu yesterday to update the Prime Minister and the AMISOM First Commander on the humanitarian situation and to discuss the scale-up of humanitarian operations in Southern Somalia in light of the evolving humanitarian emergency.

Geneva Activities

Ms. Vellucci said that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was holding an informal meeting with non-governmental organizations this morning on the situation in Paraguay, the first country to be examined at the current session. Its report would be reviewed on Wednesday afternoon and on Thursday morning, after which the Committee would examine the report of the Maldives on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, 11 and 12 August.

The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee was today discussing the studies it was conducting on discrimination in the context of the right to food, particularly the right to food of underprivileged urban populations, the right to food of rural women and the promotion of the rights of people working in rural settings. Tomorrow, the Advisory Committee would discuss the promotion of human rights by means of a better understanding of traditional values.

Ms. Vellucci said that the Conference on Disarmament would hold its next public meeting on Thursday, 11 August.

She said that the message of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on today’s International Day of the World's Indigenous People was available at the back of the room in the six official languages of the United Nations.