Sudan: Risk of health crisis in impoverished south

JUBA, 24 May 2007 (IRIN) - The increased movement of people within Southern Sudan, including the return of hundreds of thousands of former refugees and internally displaced persons, could create a public health crisis across the impoverished region, a humanitarian official has warned.

"[The year] 2006 saw huge cholera outbreaks that affected all 10 states in Southern Sudan," said Nicolas Louis, technical adviser with the European Commission's Humanitarian Office (ECHO), which has set up a permanent office in the capital, Juba, to help address rising humanitarian needs during the transition period.

He said ECHO had set aside 24.7 million Euros (US$33.2 million) to be disbursed as grants to fund various humanitarian needs in Southern Sudan in 2007. Priority sectors include healthcare, food security, water and sanitation and security.

"The outbreak was related to increased movement," Louis explained. "Suddenly people could move all over Southern Sudan without any problem. So you have refugees returning, you have the displaced returning from the north, as well as south-to-south returns."

Other diseases could spread quickly unless proper interventions are put in place. Such a development could deter many of the returnees, who fled their villages during two decades of civil war, and are coming back from other areas of Sudan and neighbouring states following the 2005 peace agreement between the government and former southern rebels.

Many of the returnees, especially the youth, were returning to urban areas, thereby further straining extremely limited social services there.

Another challenge was the increased numbers of refugees returning to Southern Sudan from neighbouring countries with a higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

"It is a big concern and we have to act now," Louis added. "HIV transmission is booming during the transition period in Southern Sudan, particularly in the Equatorias [Western Equatoria, Central Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria] where we are receiving [former] refugees from the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya."

An outbreak of meningitis, which has claimed scores of lives and affected thousands in Southern Sudan since the beginning of 2007, was an indicator of a public health crisis that could overwhelm the area if limited resources continued to hamper intervention efforts, Louis said.