Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sudan's "Lost Boys" Contribute to Improving Medical System

By Alyse Lamparyk

Edited by Gina Edwards

With no clear channels of communication and difficulty accessing many rural villages in South Sudan, the medical system there is and has been in dire need of attention. Some individuals point to the upcoming secession from North Sudan as a source of hope that the country’s healthcare will improve.

State of Sudanese Health Care

Bismarck Swangin, Communication Officer for UNICEF’s Southern Sudan Area Program—whose headquarters are in the South Sudan capital of Juba—was born in the country and is passionate about changing the harsh statistics which citizens face, particularly children.

A 2006 survey conducted by UNICEF found that approximately one in ten children in Sudan die before their fifth birthday. Mothers are at risk as well; approximately one in seven pregnant women die due to pregnancy complications.

While the mortality rates are high, Swangin said the health system has improved in the last six years since the 2005 peace agreement, as the government’s capacity has been strengthened.

“The government of Southern Sudan, the people of Southern Sudan, are very receptive to training, are very receptive to ideas … and try to move the system forward” said Swangin. “Considering where Southern Sudan is coming from…a lot of progress has been made.”

Citizens in rural areas have trouble obtaining sufficient health services, and their plight has garnered more attention and aid from organizations across the globe. Groups such as the University of Calgary’s Southern Sudan Healthcare Accessibility, Rehabilitation and Education Program (SSHARE) teach doctors techniques ranging from disease treatment to performing surgery.

Foreign Aid Assists the Lost Boys

The Canadian university in Alberta began playing a part in 2006 when Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization with headquarters nearby, contacted them to help 15 Lost Boys from Sudan return to their homeland. Upon leaving their homeland for Cuba they had been instructed by John Garang, a Sudanese politician and leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Sudan, to return with medical training.

While living in Cuba they received medical training, but when the group relocated to Canada they were unable to practice medicine and, consequently, many had taken field jobs. Once the peace agreement was signed between North and South Sudan in 2005, the group of 15 reached out for assistance.

“Because they had been out of the medical field for so long, they required some medical upgrading,” said Ruth Parent, program manager of SSHARE.

For nine months the Lost Boys increased their medical knowledge at the University of Calgary. A residency program in Kenya followed, in order to allow the doctors to work directly with patients carrying similar diseases and illnesses they would encounter back home.

The Lost Boys Return Home

Then, in 2008 and 2009, they returned to their homeland and were welcomed by the entire government of South Sudan and their people. Dr. Moses Rech and Dr. Ajak Abraham were among the 15 doctors to come home.

Around the time of their homecoming, Parent said statistics reported a total of 50 permanent doctors working with South Sudan’s population of 10 million.

Rech said that, upon arriving, there had been fears of war breaking out in response to the referendum. He was living in a place where lots of vandalism occurred and the security was poor, but he did not second-guess his choice.

“It was not for the money that I stayed there,” said Dr. Rech in an email. “My help was needed.”

Dr. Rech currently works at Kurmuk Hospital in the South Sudan State of Blue Nile, near the border of Ethiopia. Along with one other doctor and a staff of 34, Samaritan’s Purse calculates that each month the 100-bed hospital provides more than 300 inpatient and 600 outpatient procedures.

Dr. Abraham is also putting his skills to use. He works at the Memorial Christian Hospital in the village of Werkok, just outside of Bor, which is about 125 miles north of Juba.

His days are busy, as be sees between 56 and 70 patients daily, and can be challenging when the arrival of medicine is delayed due to their rural location. Additionally, Werkok’s flat landscape floods yearly.

The hospital was a result of David Bowman’s Grand Rapids, Michigan organization, Partners in Compassionate Care. Having cared for five Lost Boys with his wife, Bowman wanted to continue supporting the region. Relying solely on donations, the group has kept the $10,000 a month operation running.

“They have deeply impacted my life,” Bowman said.

The contributing organizations had an impact on the lives of the Lost Boys in that they helped them obtain their goals.

“Since they were young they’ve had in their minds that they’ve had a mission to complete,” said Parent. “It’s been very fulfilling to see them return to South Sudan and practice their skills.”

And the University of Calgary did not forget about the doctors. Since November 2009 they have held weeklong medical camps twice a year in South Sudan and shared new techniques.

“We would wake up in the morning to see hundreds of people waiting to come into the hospital and get medical care and many of these people had walked for days to get there,” said Parent of a camp in Werkok, just outside of Bor.

Educating the communities

Along with providing life-changing surgeries, the doctors have also focused on reaching out to communities to dispel myths and instruct people on the importance of washing their hands.

“They are becoming leaders within their communities. They are having a role in government and healthcare in their country,” said Parent.

For Rech it can be frustrating to work in the current medical system, but he knows the efforts to create a viable infrastructure need to begin on a grassroots level.

“We are hoping to achieve substantial progress in the near future if our government is committed to work[ing] for its people,” said Rech in an email.

With 98 percent of votes cast in favor of the secession, Southern Sudan is set to become its own country on July 9. Until then, the people will focus on strengthening their own infrastructure.

Photos courtesy of UNICEF.

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