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Relief workers fight a lonely battle against rising meningitis

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

An outbreak of meningitis in southern Sudan is testing a war-stricken population, a fragile infrastructure, and a humanitarian relief community too easily swayed by the crisis du jour. In Sudan that means Darfur, a northwestern region whose bloodletting for the last two years has sucked the energies of most aid groups with muscle enough to operate in Sudan ever since former Secretary of State Colin Powell used the word genocide to describe what's going on there. That launched a political cause that sadly diverted attention from the plight of southerners, now coming out of 20 years of civil war. The meningitis zone is an area plagued by repeated fighting and slave raids-and now, neglect.

On Feb. 12 a clinic in Nyinbuli was down to 45 vials of medicine-and using 50 a day to treat meningitis cases-when a case of new drugs arrived at midnight by bicycle. The drugs had been parceled out from another clinic where the epidemic is spreading. That clinic itself had nine deaths on that day.

At Tonj, another site of outbreak, doctors are in shorter supply than medicine. "They have enough medicine but desperately need help on the ground," reports Emuku Juventine, a Ugandan doctor serving the area with Safe Harbor International (safeharbor.org). The clinic at Tonj sees 200 patients a day, with 35 new cases of meningitis each day, reports Suzy Kuj, who operates the clinic with her husband. The clinic has medicine but other supplies, like latex gloves, are running low. And with two full-time medical personnel to serve a community of 30,000, more workers and money to transport them are needed.

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Last week the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders agreed to speed an immunization program and reported a grim tally: 1,477 cases of meningitis, including 117 deaths, in south Sudan since the beginning of 2007.


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