More than 22 million people were estimated to need humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia in 2022. Many faced the tragic consequences of conflict, particularly communities in the regions of Afar, Amhara, Tigray and Southern Nations (SNNPR).
At the same time, natural disasters pushed people’s coping mechanisms to their limits. Communities across the vastness of the Somali region experienced what is reported as the worst drought in 40 years, and when floods struck the Gambella region, more than 180,000 people were displaced from their homes, and health facilities suffered extensive damage.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responds to emergency medical and humanitarian needs of people in all these regions, including those impacted by deadly neglected tropical diseases endemic to Ethiopia. MSF staff share what they have seen about the necessity and impact of humanitarian action in Ethiopia.
Stabilising people with malnutrition in Sitti zone, Somali region
“For three months, between July and September, we responded to a terrible emergency in Sitti Zone in the Somali region of Ethiopia, an area cyclically afflicted by a combination of drought and floods, loss of livelihoods, as well as nearby conflict and displacement,” says Anna, MSF’s project coordinator.
The challenge was to find a way to respond to the enormous needs of communities scattered across a huge area. MSF ran mobile nutrition stabilization clinics in several locations that carried out screenings and a first response to malnutrition with therapeutic food. The project was aimed at children, but severely malnourished adults were also provided with medical care and patients with complications were transported back to the inpatient therapeutic feeding facility MSF supported in Asbuli for more advanced care.
“Over the course of three months, almost 2,600 people received medical consultations. We know that our activities were limited, as we could only respond to the needs of people we could reach or who could reach us,” says Anna. “However, I consider the intervention successful because it was launched at the right time and, together with the work of regional authorities and other organisations, undoubtedly saved lives and helped bridge the hunger gap for people until the rains finally came along.”
Responding to cholera in Liban zone, Somali region
In Liban zone, as MSF’s emergency malnutrition response started to phase out in November, other MSF teams were preparing to scale up our response to a cholera outbreak. Medical teams started providing hands-on training on cholera treatment to local medical staff. MSF logistics and water and sanitation experts were ensuring access to safe water and hygiene.
Teams travelled for five days to reach Kersa Dula in Liban zone and respond to the rapidly spreading outbreak. Cholera is a disease that can precipitate or aggravate malnutrition.
Once in place, the team rushed to set up a cholera treatment unit with latrines and showers. As the numbers of people affected increased in Liban zone, the team also built a stabilisation unit in Baliat.
Around 75,000 people live in Adeley camp for people who are displaced, the camp most affected by the cholera epidemic.
“Our team set up cholera treatment centres, hand washing points, built 12 latrines, and a water treatment plant to allow people access to clean, safe drinking water,” says Najah Aden Mire, water and sanitation manager. “Oral rehydration points were also set up within the camp.”
With cholera and measles already being reported, the potential for further outbreaks, including of other diseases, is high. The team worked in partnership with the Regional Health Bureau providing training on treatment and infection prevention and control to local health staff.
We see very high needs here... Most of our patients are affected by depression, some have lost relatives, or their houses have been destroyed.Demeke, supervisor for psychosocial services
Medical care for communities affected by conflict in Amhara region
In the rural areas of northern Amhara affected by conflict, people have experienced violence, loss of property and assets. They also struggle to access basic services such as healthcare due to disrupted systems. Months of conflict in the region have exhausted people’s coping mechanisms.
“We see very high needs here,” says Demeke, supervisor for psychosocial services. “Most of our patients are affected by depression, some have lost relatives, or their houses have been destroyed; others might have lost their livelihood.”
A number of patients MSF teams see are victims of violence or may have witnessed traumatic events and are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Six-year-old Frehewot was brought to our clinic by her parents, after she had started bedwetting,” says Demeke. “It became apparent that her symptoms had developed suddenly after she had witnessed violence and seen dead bodies lying on the side of the road.”
Among the essential healthcare services which MSF mobile health teams offer, women’s health and psychosocial support are central to the response.
“Our medical teams have been treating survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Survivors are offered medical care as well as mental health support,” says Noortje, one of MSF’s doctors working as part of the mobile clinic team offering care in the region.
“The stories we hear are quite similar,” says Noortje. “There is a lot of stigma attached to sexual violence; for every person that seeks treatment, many others will not.”
“A patient, Lilian, was sexually assaulted one month ago. When she first came to the clinic, she was experiencing unexplained pains in her abdomen,” says Noortje. “People worry about serious infections, such as HIV, so taking time to explain the risks and post exposure prophylaxis makes a huge difference.”
“After receiving medical care, I could tell she was already feeling relieved and reassured,” says Noortje.
Medical care for all in Kule camp
In Kule camp, where more than 50,000 people from South Sudan now reside after having sought refuge, MSF medical teams offer basic and more specialised healthcare services. Our teams treat both outpatients and people who have been admitted to hospital.
“I drove 45 minutes to get my daughter and wife to a doctor,” says Temesegen, a state employee of the Refugees Returnees Service. “This is not the first time I have come to MSF’s hospital. In 2019, I was admitted in critical condition. At the time I had first visited another health centre, much closer to where I lived, to seek treatment. When I had not improved, I was told to try another organisation called MSF, in Kule camp. Even though there are other options, MSF provides the best quality service.”
“Our patients are not only South Sudanese refugees,” says Hailemariam, a doctor working in Kule health centre emergency room. “We also provide services for the host community. Many work here for different aid organisations, as well as for Ethiopia’s organisation for refugees.”
People also come from other refugee camps; it can take them up to four hours to get here. Most of the patients the MSF team sees are children under five and pregnant women.
“We have a registration form on which we record where people come from – but specifically for medical purposes because at MSF we make no distinction in treating patients,” says Hailemariam.
“I am also a stranger; I come from Addis, other colleagues are from Gambella,” says Hailemariam. “At MSF there are no borders.”
I joined MSF because of... its principles. The one I find the most vital is impartiality. It is at MSF’s core – we treat everybody regardless of who they are or where they’re from.Kassaye, MSF medical activity manager
Treating snakebite and kala azar in Abdurafi, Amhara region
Both snakebite envenoming and kala azar, are endemic in Ethiopia and are among the world’s most neglected diseases.
“We had just reopened our clinic in Abdurafi, when, three days later, a 12-year-old boy, who was close to death, was brought to us from Metema,” says Kassaye, MSF’s medical activity manager in Abdurafi. “He had suffered snakebite envenoming on his right foot in Abdu, the village where he lived, 100 kilometres from Metema.”
Since 2015, MSF offers quality, free anti-venom treatment for snakebite victims in Abdurafi.
“He arrived in very poor condition,” says Kassaye. “Even his brothers did not believe he would recover. He was vomiting blood, his pulse was barely discernible, he was in haemorrhagic shock and semiconscious.
“We didn’t waste time. We placed him on two drips, one with the anti-venom, the other with rehydration fluids. We gave him a blood transfusion and more anti-venom,” says Kassaye. “We tried everything. It was truly amazing that the boy recovered.”
“I joined MSF because of its impact on the lives of people like this boy, and its principles. The one I find the most vital is impartiality,” says Kassaye. “It is at MSF’s core – we treat everybody regardless of who they are or where they’re from.”
“I remember back in November 2019, on the border with Sudan, a Sudanese man came to our health centre in Abdurafi,” says Kassaye. “He was ill with kala-azar, a deadly disease transmitted by the sand fly.”
“However, we could not understand each other because he could speak only Arabic. We went looking for a translator in town and sure enough found someone who could translate. The man was treated and eventually recovered and was discharged,” says Kassaye. “That is what MSF stands for. We don’t discriminate, we don’t look at where people come from, what their religion is, what allegiance they have.”
MSF has been working in Ethiopia for 37 years, providing medical assistance to millions of people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters or with limited access to healthcare, in collaboration with Ethiopian authorities at local, regional and national levels. All our activities are guided by humanitarian principles: humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality.