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Outbreak of Kala Azar disease strikes South Sudan

South Sudan is experiencing an epidemic of Kala Azar disease, the worst to hit the region in eight years. Up to the end of October, over 9,000 cases of the parasitic disease had been reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), most of them children. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is working to combat the outbreak, which was first reported back in September last year. 

The worst-affected areas are the Jonglei and Upper Nile regions of South Sudan near the Ethiopian border. MSF has seen an eight-fold increase in cases, treating 2,355 people in November. The Kala Azar disease is an infection caused by the Leishmania donovani parasite and is transmitted by the bites of the sandfly. The disease is particularly prevalent in India, Sudan and Brazil, where most of the half million cases are reported annually. If left untreated the disease is fatal, causing damage to internal organs such as the liver and spleen.

It’s always a race against time to save lives”, said a medical coordinator from MSF. Once patients have been diagnosed, a cure for the disease requires daily injections over the course of a month, which means those infected have to stay near health centres. Even after medical treatment, up to 5 per cent of patients can die later. And death rates are likely to be higher in South Sudan, where poverty and malnutrition already take their toll on the health of the inhabitants. Each year, between 20 to 50 per cent of the population requires food aid. During 2010, the United Nations has been supplying around 8.3 million people in South Sudan with aid.

Efforts to distribute food and medical supplies are hampered by the inaccessibility of large parts of the country. There are few all-weather roads and since the end of the north-south war in 2005, little money has been invested in health facilities or staff. Around 80 per cent of health services are currently provided by aid agencies, who are already over-stretched.

Many southern Sudanese are putting their hopes for a better future in the referendum next month, where it is widely predicted the mainly Christian South will vote to separate from the Muslim North of the country. Some analysts predict such an outcome could reignite the conflict. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has drawn up a contingency plan to outline how the UNHCR would cope with the hundreds of thousands of refugees who would flee the region if violence did break out after a vote for southern independence. But behind the scenes, politicians and diplomats are doing all they can to try and avert violence. The lifting of economic sanctions and help from the World Bank are being offered as incentives if peace continues in the region. Norway has also been advising both the North and the South on the extraction of Sudan’s oil, since increased production would guarantee extra revenues to both governments. For the sake of the impoverished people in Sudan, it is to be hoped there are enough incentives for both sides not to return to violence.

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