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“Humanitarian corridor” for medical aid is vital in Congo, says Miliband

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2413 (Published 04 November 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2413
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. 1London

    United Nations peacekeepers are escorting a convoy of urgent medical supplies across the frontline in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an attempt to prevent mass outbreaks of disease among hundreds of thousands of people displaced by recent fighting.

    Paul Garwood, of the World Health Organization’s department for health action in crises, said that up to a million people were affected by the crisis and that WHO was “reacting aggressively” by intervening with emergency supplies in a response to the immediate healthcare needs of the affected people.

    He said, “This region of DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] is endemic for a range of illnesses, and the fear is that the massive displacement of people could exacerbate these health risks.” Thus an immediate priority was to strengthen surveillance and monitoring activities, he said.

    Medical aid has been prioritised ahead of food aid because widespread outbreaks of cholera and malaria have already occurred, and the health authorities fear that worse is to come. The World Food Programme is also sending an emergency assessment team.

    After a fact finding mission to the region alongside the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, the UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, said, “There is no excuse for turning away.

    “The immediate needs are obvious. We saw them yesterday. The ceasefire last Wednesday needs to be bolstered. The humanitarian needs for food, shelter, water, and health care must be met through universal provision and secure routes for delivery. This requires local and international cooperation.”

    The region, on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, has been beleaguered by fighting and ethnic tension since the mass influx of Hutu refugees in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The latest insurgency by some 10 000 rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda is backed by a large number of Tutsis in the region, who are intimidated by the continuing activities of the Hutu militias and robbery and looting by the Congolese armed forces.

    “Our message was that the world is watching,” Mr Miliband said. “Everyone is haunted by the memories of the 1990s. All sides have to live up to their stated responsibilities. It is vital we maintain the ceasefire and get a humanitarian corridor open.”

    Hospitals and clinics in the area have been looted, and the UN believes that a number of camps for internally displaced people have been deliberately targeted by the rebels, creating tens of thousands of additional refugees. The UN has appealed for all sides to respect the camps and the humanitarian assistance.

    WHO has urged “all parties to the conflict to ensure that health facilities and personnel are not targeted by the violence, because it is during crises like these that people need health services more than ever.”

    The Democratic Republic of Congo currently hosts the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, a 17 000 strong force, of whom 5000 are currently stationed in the east of the country. Britain and the European Union are considering sending additional troops.

    Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned last weekend, “We must not allow Congo to become another Rwanda.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2413

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