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Darfur crisis intensifies

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 19 August 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:420
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. London

    Torrential rain has fallen on displaced people's camps in the Darfur region of Sudan, increasing the risk of the spread of disease. Meanwhile the World Food Programme has begun to airdrop supplies to cut-off areas, and a contingent of Rwandan troops has arrived in Darfur to protect African Union ceasefire monitors (see News Extra, BMJ 2004;329:310 (7 August)).

    Meanwhile the UN Security Council is considering whether Sudan has done enough to avoid sanctions, and the country's government in Khartoum accused the West of exaggerating the scale of the crisis as a pretext for intervention.

    A World Health Organization field mission investigating outbreaks of hepatitis E has found that “water sources are exposed to contamination, water transport to the shelters is not sufficient, and water storage at the shelter level is unsafe, suffering from inadequate containers and mishandling.” It says that there is also “low awareness of hygiene and the impact of contaminated water on health.”

    Seventy five per cent of the deaths from this strain of hepatitis E were pregnant women, with those in overcrowded camps at highest risk, according to WHO. Death rates from hepatitis E would normally vary from 1% to 4% but may be as high as 20% in pregnant women, who are more susceptible to the disease, the team said.

    WHO has warned: “Despite important efforts by international organizations, existing resources are insufficient to cover the basic needs of the displaced. Without an immediate improvement in access to safe, clean water and better sanitation in these camps, the disease could spread rapidly.”

    Security remains a concern. On 13 August the International Committee of the Red Cross said: “Fighting in western Darfur and south of Nyala continues. It is reported to have resulted in large numbers of casualties. The fighting is provoking further displacement of people and illnesses.”

    The Sudanese president, Omar el-Beshir, claimed that current humanitarian concerns and plans to send peacekeepers are just an excuse to plunder his country's resources. He told state television: “America and Europe harbour objectives that do not include the safety and prosperity of the people of Darfur … they are in search of gold and petroleum.”

    “Oil and gold is not the issue here,” responded the US State Department, “The issue is saving people from disease, starvation, rape, and murder.”

    Amnesty International said that militias continue to rape women and girls who leave their camps and that the government has arrested dozens of people for speaking to foreigners about the current situation. After the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that helicopter gunships were continuing to attack civilians and the UN secretary general's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, voiced similar concerns, Khartoum threatened to suspend cooperation if there were any further negative comments.

    Human Rights Watch commented: “The Sudanese government seems to be putting much more effort into what you could call a public relations campaign than it is into really trying to curtail the atrocities in Darfur.”

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