Aid blocked and diseases neglected : MSF releases 12th top ten humanitarian crises

Civilians attacked, bombed, and cut off from aid in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), along with stagnant funding for treating HIV/AIDS and ongoing neglect of other diseases, were among the worst emergencies in 2009, the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported today in its annual list of the "Top Ten" humanitarian crises.

Continuing crises in north and south Sudan, along with the failure of the international community to finally combat childhood malnutrition were also included on this year's list.  The list is drawn from MSF's operational activities in close to 70 countries, where the organization's medical teams witnessed some of the worst humanitarian conditions.

Three distinct patterns dominated in 2009: governments blocked lifesaving assistance to trapped populations, including in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Sudan, where aid groups—including some MSF teams—were expelled from Darfur; respect for civilian safety and neutral humanitarian action further eroded, such as in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, DRC, and Somalia, where people—and in some cases aid workers—were either indiscriminately or directly attacked; people suffering from a host of largely ignored diseases were again neglected by the international community, and those living with HIV/AIDS saw their chances of receiving life extending therapy further diminished.

"There is no question that civilians are increasingly victimized in conflicts and further cut off from lifesaving assistance, often deliberately," said MSF International Council President Dr. Christophe FOURNIER.  "In places like Sri Lanka and Yemen, where armed conflicts raged in 2009, aid groups were either blocked from accessing those in need or forced out because they too came under fire.  This unacceptable dynamic is becoming the norm.  Our teams on the ground are witnessing the very tangible human consequences of these crises directly, either in war zones or in the AIDS and nutrition clinics in which they work," he said.  We're therefore compelled and obligated to speak out."

In Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of civilians were trapped with no aid and limited medical care as government forces battled Tamil Tiger rebels in the spring.  Aid groups, including MSF, were banned from entering the conflict zone. In Somalia, civilians continued to bear the brunt of a vicious civil war.  More than 200,000 people fled the capital, Mogadishu, in just the first few months of 2009 and aid workers were increasingly targeted – at least 42 relief workers have been killed since 2008, including three MSF staff. 

In Yemen, civilians and hospitals were heavily affected by fighting in the Saada region in the north of the country as government forces fought rebels.  The fighting forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and compelled MSF to close the only hospital serving an entire district after it was shelled. And in a glaring case of abuse of humanitarian action for military gain, civilians gathered with their children at MSF vaccination sites in North Kivu, DRC in October, came under attack by government forces.  The attack threatened to severely undermine the trust necessary to carry out independent medical humanitarian work in conflict settings. 

In Pakistan, where tens of thousands fled fighting, hospitals were struck by mortar fire and two MSF workers were killed in Swat Valley, where the organisation ultimately suspended its operations due to the violence there. 

On the medical front, years of success in increasing treatment for the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS was threatened with punishment in 2009.  The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) announced plans to reduce or limit funding.

"Just when more and more people were accessing crucial medicines and medical experts were acknowledging the need to put people on treatment sooner, patients will be turned away from clinics because the funding just won't be there," said Dr. Fournier. "The timing could not be worse."

The neglect also extends to childhood malnutrition, a treatable disease that is the underlying cause of up to half of the annual ten million preventable deaths of children under five each year.  Global leaders gathered at the World Food Summit in Rome in 2009 failed to commit to combating the disease, which groups like MSF have shown can be prevented and treated by providing growing children with proper foods that meet their nutritional requirements. 

Right now, international assistance to fight malnutrition amounts $350 million dollars, while the World Bank estimates $11.8 billion is required to adequately combat the disease in 36 high burden countries.  Additionally, most food assistance is made up of costly and inefficient in-kind donations containing products of poor nutritional value that must be shipped overseas.  Resources could be better spent on obtaining nutritionally appropriated foods closer to their source.

Other diseases, such as Chagas, kala azar, sleeping sickness, and Buruli ulcer continue to be neglected, with very few new commitments to expanding access to available treatment or carrying out research for much needed newer and more effective drugs.

"We have seen that the international community is able to quickly mobilize extensive resources in the fight against the H1N1 pandemic, said Dick VAN DER TAK, Executive Director of MSF Hong Kong. "It would be fantastic if a similar commitment could be given to combat other diseases claiming millions of lives each year."

MSF began producing the "Top Ten" list in 1998, when a devastating famine in southern Sudan went largely unreported in media. Drawing on MSF's emergency medical work, the list seeks to generate greater awareness of the magnitude and severity of crises that may or may not be reflected in media accounts.

> Top ten humanitarian crises 2009