DRC suffers ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’

The war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is suffering the world’s deadliest humanitarian crisis, with 38 000 people dying each month mostly from easily treatable diseases, according to a study published on Friday in Britain’s leading medical journal.

Nearly four million died between 1998 and 2004 alone — the indirect result of years of ruinous fighting that has brought on a stunning collapse of public health services, the study published in the Lancet said.

The majority of deaths were due to disease rather than violence, but war has cut off or reduced access to health services for millions of people in the impoverished, Europe-sized nation.

Though major fighting ended in 2002, the situation remains dire, particularly in the eastern DRC, because of continued insecurity, poor access to health care and inadequate international aid.

”Rich donor nations are miserably failing the people of [the DRC], even though every few months the mortality equivalent of two South-East Asian tsunamis plows through its territory,” the study said.

Backed by about 15 000 United Nations peacekeepers, the DRC’s government is struggling to re-establish authority across the country ahead of historic nationwide elections expected later this year, the first in decades. Militiamen still roam huge swaths of the east, formerly controlled by several different rebel groups whose leaders have been allotted top government posts.

The study was based on a survey conducted in the DRC between April and July 2004. Health ministry workers and local staff of the aid group International Rescue Committee fanned out across the country, conducting interviews at 19 500 households.

The results showed that the DRC’s monthly mortality rate was 40% higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa — 2,1 deaths per 1 000 people (equivalent to 1 200 fatalities per day) in the DRC compared with a continental average of 1,5 deaths per 1 000 people.

Mortality rates were highest in the DRC’s eastern provinces, which have been wracked by fighting and lawlessness for a decade. There, death rates were 93% higher than the sub-Saharan Africa norm.

”The persistently high mortality in … Congo is deeply disturbing and indicates that both national and international efforts to address the crisis remain grossly inadequate,” the report said.

Most deaths reported were due to ”preventable and easily treatable diseases”, the study said. Malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malnutrition topped the list.

While much of Africa has grappled with conflict or natural disaster — drought-induced food shortages in Niger last year, fighting in Sudan’s Darfur region and in northern Uganda — the study said the DRC ”remains the world’s deadliest humanitarian crisis”.

”Improvements in security and increased humanitarian assistance are urgently needed.”

The DRC suffered back-to-back wars, first in 1996-1997 when Rwandan-backed rebels swept the country to overthrow late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and then a 1998-2002 war that sucked in the armies of half-a-dozen African nations.

Fighting led to mass displacement and a collapse of public health services, rights abuses and an increase in rape. Some remote areas were cut off from contact with the outside world.

But the situation in the DRC was dire for decades: years of corruption left the country deeply impoverished and undeveloped despite its mineral wealth.

The report blamed the crisis partly on a drop in donor aid, saying the UN had only raised 42% of the funding it sought. It said the United States Agency for International Development’s contributions had fallen 25%.

”In spite of the critical need to complement increased humanitarian assistance with scaled-up security and diplomatic measures, the response of the international community to date remains inadequate.” — Sapa-AP

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Todd Pitman
Todd Pitman works from [email protected] Regional Public Information Officer, UN Human Rights (OHCHR), based in Bangkok. Ex-AP foreign correspondent in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Todd Pitman has over 2342 followers on Twitter.

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