REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
10 July 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the International Labour Organization, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the UN Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration.
Marixie Mercado of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that UNICEF warned that an upsurge of cholera in the Sahel was placing children already weakened by malnutrition at acute risk. The number of cholera cases had shot up especially in regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reported nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.
Cholera was recurrent throughout the Sahel, said Ms. Mercado. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases had been reported, mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria. This year, the epidemic appeared to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact was aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali. Numerous people, including children, had fled their homes, with 150,000 internally displaced inside Mali, and over 180,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. The combination of displacement, the onset of rains and the acute malnutrition was extremely dangerous for children.
Since the beginning of the year, about a quarter of a million children had received life-saving treatment at one of 5,200 nutrition centres across the Sahel, thanks to funding provided early for nutrition supplies. The water, sanitation, hygiene and health aspects of the response were only about a quarter funded. For the rest of the year, UNICEF had unmet requirements of USD 146 million for the Sahel response.
Tarik Jasarevic of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that 2,242 cases, including 56 deaths, had been recorded in Niger between 1 January and 1 July 2012. Most of these cases had occurred along the River Niger, in the Tillaberi region. A joint mission by the Ministry of Public Health, UNICEF, WHO and NGOs had visited the affected areas on 20 June to investigate the factors which were likely to maintain and spread the epidemic, as well as to support the implementation of response activities. The response of the Ministry of Health and WHO included improved epidemiological surveillance, technical support and provision of medication, as well as diagnostic tests and confirmation of cases. Cases had also started to be reported in Wabaria, Mali, on 2 July 2012. As of 7 July, there were 45 cases, including 2 deaths.
The consumption of water from the Niger River had been identified as a potential cause of the outbreak, said Mr. Jasarevic. The population no longer had the resources to treat the water before consumption. As water supplies in Gao and Timbuktu broke down due to a lack of fuel to activate the water pumping stations, there was an additional risk of propagation of diarrhoeal diseases. A cholera treatment centre had been put in place, local health centres had been conducting case management, and WHO had sent a cholera kit through Médecins du Monde. There was a potential for a large outbreak as Gao had not experienced outbreaks since 2007, thus putting the population at risk.
Food and nutrition crises were also health crises, said Mr. Jasarevic, as the most vulnerable people – mainly children under five – died as a result of the medical complications of malnutrition. Health systems in the Sahel region were already among the weakest in the world, and particularly in the current food insecure areas. WHO supported the efforts of the Government and health partners to improve access and to control disease outbreaks.
The health sector was underfunded, with only 19 per cent of requirements met so far for the five countries, and WHO had only received 8 per cent of the funding required for the nine countries.
Adrian Edwards of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that six months ago refugees began fleeing Mali to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. Today, political instability in Bamako and insecurity in northern Mali continued to trigger the flight of thousands of refugees to neighbouring countries. Over 365,000 people were estimated to have been displaced since the start of the year.
Over the past month, the major influx had been into Mauritania, with 15,000 people having arrived in the last two weeks of June and arrivals continuing at between 200 and 300 a day since then. Most of these people were from the Timbuktu region. They cited recent armed confrontation between Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels as the reason for their flight.
Smaller numbers of refugees were continuing to arrive in Burkina Faso and Niger. They warned that instability in the north, especially in the Gao area, could result in new arrivals over the coming weeks.
In Mauritania the Government and UNHCR had agreed to open a new camp to accommodate the large number of new arrivals. The new camp would be located close to the village of Aghor, close to the Mbera refugee camp in the country’s southwest where close to 90,000 refugees were already hosted. Aghor had been home to thousands of Malian refugees in the 1990s.
UNHCR alarm on health risks for refugees in South Sudan
Mr. Edwards said that conditions in South Sudan’s refugee camps had continued to worsen over the past few days under the strain of continuing large refugee inflows and flooding from torrential rains. The health situation had at this point become UNHCR’s priority concern, and the organization was watching closely for possible outbreaks of disease.
Health actors and the UN Refugee Agency were undertaking a mass health screening to obtain better data on the actual mortality rates and vaccination coverage rates across all refugee sites in South Sudan’s Upper Nile and Unity States. These surveys were still not complete. In light of the weak state of the population on arrival, large-scale programmes were required to immediately address their needs and prevent people’s health from deteriorating further. In remote places such as the borders of Unity and Upper Nile states, the challenge for UNHCR was equaled by very few other situations in the world. Massive health outreach and intensive hygiene and sanitation programmes were needed to mitigate the threats to the health of thousands of refugees there, said Mr. Edwards.
In Yida settlement, close to the Southern Kordofan border, in Unity state, new arrivals had doubled the refugee population since early May to close to 60,000 persons. While UNHCR was conducting verification of numbers, congestion in a limited strip of land already cut-off by rains created a further health challenge. Last week saw a sharp increase of bloody diarrhea cases reported by health actors working there. To address this and secure clean and sufficient drinking water, more wells were being drilled and additional drilling teams brought to the scene. UNHCR was also distributing this week thousands of jerry cans and buckets to all families with children under five. Additional amounts of chlorine were being used at water points. Efforts were also under way by all actors to increase awareness among the mostly young refugee population about hygiene, health and nutrition risks. The most critical challenge for UNHCR and partners working there was to provide enough clean water for all refugees and prevent diseases in this remote part of South Sudan, underlined Mr. Edwards.
In Maban county of Upper Nile State, which hosted over 110,000 refugees from Blue Nile State in Sudan, water had also been a critical challenge. Aid agencies had progressed in securing water through drilling and trucking to refugee sites. Due to torrential rains and flooding the few existing roads were largely impassable, slowing the delivery of assistance. Moving this life-saving equipment by helicopter was also being considered, but a lack of funds was hampering this effort.
After a decade in Mogadishu Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar
Mr. Edwards said this past weekend UNHCR had successfully completed the voluntary repatriation of 38 Tanzanian refugees from Zanzibar who had been residing in Mogadishu for the past 11 years.
The group, comprising 12 families, had been flown on two special UNHCR-chartered flights from Mogadishu to Zanzibar on Friday, 6 July. From there, seven families had been accompanied back to their home villages on Pemba Island following a short ferry ride, while five families had opted to remain and re-start their lives on the main Zanzibar island of Unguja.
The returning refugees had been given a reintegration package including a cash grant, four months’ food supply, as well as basic shelter and household items. Together with the Tanzanian authorities, UNHCR would be monitoring the returned families to ensure their successful reintegration.
Mr. Jasarevic said that Cambodia had reported an undiagnosed illness to WHO on 1 July 2012. There had been 62 cases, including 61 among hospitalized children. WHO and partners, including the lnstitut Pasteur du Cambodge and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were supporting the Ministry of Health with the investigation into the illness.
Based on the latest laboratory results, a significant proportion of the samples had tested positive for enterovirus 71 (EV-71), which caused hand, foot and mouth disease. The EV-71 virus had been known to generally cause severe complications amongst some patients. Additionally, a number of other pathogens, including dengue and streptococcus, had been identified in some samples. However, the samples had been found to be negative for H5N1 and other influenza viruses, SARS and Nipah. Further investigations to match the clinical, laboratory and epidemiological information were ongoing and likely to be concluded in a few days.
In response to a question, Mr. Jasarevic said that the hand, foot and mouth disease was a common infectious disease of infants and children. The disease was spread from person to person by direct contact with nose or throat discharges, saliva, fluid from blisters, or the stool of infected persons. The hand, foot and mouth disease should not be confused with the so-called foot-and-mouth disease observed in animals.
Asked for further information, Mr. Jasarevic said that the hand, foot and mouth disease was most commonly caused by the coxsackievirus A16, which usually resulted in a mild, self-limiting disease. Commonly observed symptoms included fever, painful sores in the mouth and a rash with blisters on the hands. The symptoms mostly disappeared after a week without any treatment. Only in a small portion of cases, when the illness was caused by the EV-71 virus, were there any severe complications. A total of 59 cases fitted the new, refined case definition, with a total of 74 identified cases.
Mr. Jasarevic said that cases had started appearing in April, with the majority of cases appearing in May and June. WHO had been informed on 1 July on the basis of the international health regulations system notification mechanism which specified the criteria for notifying events where the underlying agent or disease of transmission is not formally identified. Both WHO’s regional office and its country office had been working with the Cambodian Ministry of Health.
New AIDS report
Sophie Barton-Knott of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said that ahead of International AIDS Conference, which would take place in Washington DC from 22-27 July, UNAIDS would be launching a new report on the AIDS epidemic.
The report was called “Together we can END AIDS” and contained the latest data on numbers of new HIV infections, numbers of people receiving treatment, AIDS-related deaths and HIV among children. It also highlighted new scientific opportunities and social progress and gave an overview of international and domestic investments for HIV.
The report would be provided to journalists under embargo a couple of days ahead of the launch. While the main launch would be held in Washington on Wednesday 18 July, there would be a press briefing in Geneva (time and place to be announced).
IOM Communications Wind Down as Pakistan Compensates 1.1 Million Flood Victims
Christopher Lom of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that an IOM Humanitarian Communications project designed to support a USD 465 million compensation programme targeting 1.1 million victims of Pakistan’s cataclysmic 2010 floods was winding down as the programme neared completion.
IOM’s role had been to establish and maintain two-way communications between the Government, beneficiaries and other stakeholders. It had worked with the National Database and Registration Authority to provide essential information to the beneficiaries.
As the Watan Card project winded down, the call centre would be handed over to National Database and Registration Authority to disseminate information about various social protection programmes.
Human Rights Committee
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Human Rights Committee had opened a three-week session yesterday. The Committee was concluding its dialogue with a delegation from Iceland this morning and would start examining the report of Lithuania this afternoon. Scheduled for review later this week was the report of the Maldives, to be followed by the reports of Armenia and Kenya next week.
Forced labour in EU countries
Jean-Luc Martinage of the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that ILO’s office in Brussels would today present estimates of forced labour in European Union countries to the European Parliament. These statistics were derived from the overall estimates presented at the International Labour Conference.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Economic Report on Africa 2012 entitled "Unleashing Africa's Potential as a Pole of Global Growth" would be launched by Magdi Farahat, Principal Advisor on Trade, Geneva Inter-Regional Advisory Services, UN Economic Commission for Africa, at 11.45 a.m. in Press Room 1 today. Later in the day, at 12.30 p.m. in Press Room 1, there would be a press conference by the World Trade Organization on “Dispute Settlement Body”.
Mr. Martinage added that the study "Eurozone job crisis: Trends and policy responses" would be launched under embargo at 2.30 p.m. today in Room III by Raymond Torres, Director of the ILO International Institute for Labour Studies, probably in the presence of ILO Director-General Juan Somavia.
Mr. Jasarevic said that two experts would give a press briefing on violence against children with disabilities on Wednesday, 11 July at 3 p.m. in Press Room 1. Children with disabilities were almost four times more likely to experience violence than non-disabled children, according to a review commissioned by the World Health Organization and to be published on Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.