25 January 2007 Edition
International: Media's watchful eye ignores suffering of millions
Crises without coverage
We often hear about the war on Iraq, the Middle East conflict, and natural or man-made disasters. But when did you last hear about malnutrition, the TB epidemic, situations in Chechnya and Haiti? Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), an NGO providing healthcare in conflict areas, publishes an annual list of the world’s top ten underreported humanitarian crises. The 2006 list is summarised below.
Central Africa Republic (CAR)
There has been little coverage of the CAR’s civil war and the 3.6 million people caught in the crossfire. Over 100,000 civilians have been displaced, with 46,000 fleeing to neighbouring Chad while others hide in the forests, lacking shelter, food, clean water and healthcare.
In October 2006, the rebel Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement launched an attack in northeast CAR and seized control of several cities. Civilians were cut off from aid when humanitarian organisations were refused access to the region, until government forces regained control in December.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
Recent elections may have briefly thrust the DRC into the spotlight, but the extreme deprivation endured by millions of Congolese continued out of view. The mineral-rich east of the country remains gripped by violence with various armed groups, including the national army, using force against the civilian population and creating brutal living conditions.
In early 2006, fighting between the army and the Mai Mai rebel forces in Katanga province caused displacement of tens of thousands. People were forced to live in overcrowded conditions with virtually no access to food or clean water, falling prey to hunger and disease with little assistance arriving.
There are also alarmingly high rates of sexual violence against women in North Kivu province. In June, 50,000 displaced people sought safety in the small town of Gety, where they arrived in a terrible state after spending weeks or months in the forest.
For the past 15 years, Somalia has been in the grip of an internal conflict which has had catastrophic consequences on the health of its people. Recent events may have generated fleeting worldwide attention, but the terrible day-to-day living conditions remain largely ignored. Somalia has some of the world’s worst health indicators: life expectancy is 47 years, and more than one-quarter of children die before their fifth birthday.
The conflict in 2006 was characterised by intense bursts of violence in the capital, Mogadishu, and in outlying regions. In July, a coalition under the umbrella of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) wrestled control of Mogadishu from militias that had preyed on the local population for years, and quickly gained influence in the country’s central and southern areas. Then, in late December, the Western- and Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government drove the ICU from areas it controlled.
Against this backdrop, Somalia was hit by torrential rains in November which flooded its rivers, leaving tens of thousands of families homeless and destroying their sustenance crops. This occurred just six months after the region nestled between the two rivers had endured a drought.
TB is making a comeback and it is in developing countries that the disease is taking a devastating toll. Every year, TB kills nearly two million people, with an estimated nine million developing the disease, including 450,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant TB.
The main reason for the TB epidemic is pharmaceutical companies’ lack of interest in developing drugs for diseases considered eradicated in the West. Today, TB is mostly a disease of the poor, and the poor cannot pay for medicines. Existing TB treatments and diagnostics have also been poorly adapted for use in people living with HIV/AIDS, even though TB is their number-one killer.
MSF’s top ten underreported humanitarian stories of 2006 continues next week.