Jeff Colyer: Preventing catastrophe in South Sudan

06/13/2014 5:28 PM

06/15/2014 6:15 PM

As soon as she started going into labor, the young mother-to-be knew something was horribly wrong.

Unable to find help in her village, the ailing young woman walked for miles before convincing someone to drive her two hours over bumpy dirt roads to our International Medical Corps clinic.

Since a proper delivery table hadn’t arrived yet, the midwife held the mother’s legs only to discover the baby was in the breech position, ready to come into the world feet first. What happened next was the difference between life and death. The moment of crisis our patient faced in many ways symbolizes a broader crisis that faces this new nation of South Sudan: What can be done to avert disaster?

South Sudan already has the world’s highest rate of acute child malnutrition, according to UNICEF. Renewed violence over the last six months forced more than one million people from their homes and today the country faces its worst famine in a generation.

While there is hope with a recent peace accord, conditions remain tense.

International Medical Corps has been working in South Sudan for more than 20 years, operating in the worst-hit areas. Much as the young mother saw danger coming, so we can see the famine approaching. Data from the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) indicates that four million people will need urgent assistance later this fall and into next year. Markets are disrupted and food prices are high.

Our nutrition clinics have seen acute malnutrition as high as 25 percent, and we know this rate could easily go higher.

Every day we see mothers and children who are on the edge. If this trend continues, the world could witness the worst famine in decades.

Typically, the rains come in June and if the farmers get their crops planted in time, the South Sudanese can survive for another year. But this year, a million people are displaced in camps or the countryside. Often they are eating their planting seed or too frightened to tend the fields.

At our outpatient clinic in Malakal we see about 200 patients a day, 40 percent of whom suffer from respiratory infections or diarrhea — the two great silent killers of malnourished children. Staff at our other sites within the conflict zone report similar issues and in the capital, Juba, cholera is on the rise.

Aside from recognizing the enormity of the potential calamity that awaits South Sudan and encouraging the peace process, important concrete steps are also needed. These include: creating humanitarian corridors to ship more supplies to hard hit areas; allowing UN forces to patrol cities like Malakal until local security is adequate so that humanitarian groups can effectively carry out their work; and allocating funds already committed to South Sudan by the international community next year for use this summer to ward off the looming threat of famine.

The young woman in labor who made it to the clinic here survived. A skilled midwife and doctor, along with some patience and a little luck, delivered a bouncing 4-pound girl.

It will take far more for South Sudan to avoid its looming disaster. The humanitarian crisis is growing, but if we act now, we can save lives and mitigate the crisis.

Jeff Colyer, a surgeon and resident of Overland Park, is the lieutenant governor of Kansas. He recently served two weeks in South Sudan as a volunteer physician for International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles-based humanitarian relief organization.

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