MSF steps up relief efforts for cut-off populations in DRC

This woman is suffering from river blindness. The disease, which is hyper endemic, has an enormous impact on the society and in some villages as many as 85% of the people are affected. During the last stage of the diseases, the victim goes blind.

Against the backdrop of this human crisis, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working in the DRC since 1981 - when it was called Zaire - and is increasing its teams inside the country. At present, close to 100 expatriates, alongside hundreds of Congolese staff, are attending to some of the most urgent medical needs in both the war-ravaged east of the country and in the poverty-stricken west.

The MSF teams are often obliged to use all possible means to reach the population, travelling through the jungle by motorbike and canoe when necessary.

Conditions are most severe in eastern Congo, the setting of numerous micro-conflicts and heavy fighting between armies, rebel movements and proxy militias. In Bunia, Ituri province, a surgical team has been operating on patients with war injuries and setting up water and sanitation facilities in the displaced camps. More to the south, in the area of N'dalia, MSF has been providing medical care as well as shelter for the people fleeing the intense fighting in Bunia.

The year 2002 was the 10th anniversary of the war in the DRC. Massacres, mass rape and displacement in the DRC have long since ceased to be news for the rest of the world. Before the war there were largest erea's with limited acces to healthcare and by now what was there is mostly destroyed.

Front lines are also continually moving and civilians are perpetually fleeing from the violence and terror. It is extremely hard to reach affected populations, who have often fled deep into the bush.

MSF teams continue to move from one location to another to bring basic health care to populations cut off from aid. The condition of these people is shocking: they suffer from a lack of food and health care and are often victim of forced labour and extreme violence, including rape.

In eastern towns such as Shabunda, which MSF had to evacuate more than once because of the violence, MSF continues to support the hospital and the health centres in the surrounding forest. More to the south, in Katanga province, MSF delivers basic health care to IDPs and isolated communities and runs feeding centres for malnourished children.

Access to health care is a nationwide problem in the DRC

Even if people were to reach the health structures in spite of limited transportation and poor roads, they would find many of the health centres and hospitals not to be functioning.

The country's infrastructure has effectively collapsed, and there is a complete lack of medicines and trained health staff. MSF implements a health zones programme in Equator, Katanga and Oriental provinces with the aim of ensuring access to quality health care for more than one million inhabitants along both sides of the frontline.

MSF teams continue to move from one location to another to bring basic health care to populations cut off from aid. The condition of these people is shocking: they suffer from a lack of food and health care and are often victim of forced labour and extreme violence, including rape.

MSF mobile teams travel from one health centre to another and stay overnight in villages. Besides getting health posts and hospitals up and running again, this also involves improving the prevention and treatment of malaria, severe respiratory infections and sexually transmitted infections, raising awareness about sexual violence and increasing the measles vaccinations coverage.

Measles is a major problem as the vaccination coverage in the country is lower than 40%. Consequently MSF has decided to organise measles campaigns in all health zones where it is present.

MSF's Congo Emergency Pool (PUC) has bases in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka and Kisangani and specialises in the rapid detection and response to emergencies, ranging from natural disasters and population movements to the increasing number of epidemics such as measles, cholera and meningitis.

On average, PUC conducts over 30 assessments and carries out 20 interventions per year. Currently, PUC is vaccinating 80,000 children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years against measles in Banalia health zone (Oriental province) after it discovered 507 cases.

Another MSF team will start a vaccination campaign for 30,000 children in Kabalo (Katanga province) at the beginning of June.

MSF also pays particular attention to sleeping sickness with a programme in Equator province and to the growing problem of HIV/AIDS. MSF runs an HIV/AIDS pilot programme in Bukavu, providing voluntary testing and counselling, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and opportunistic infections. Similar programmes are in place in 33 health structures in Katanga province, 15 in Equator province and 47 in Kinshasa. This year, MSF hopes to expand the Bukavu and Kinshasa programmes to include antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.