LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rebels and bandits in Central African Republic (CAR) have ransacked clinics and forced medical staff to flee, leaving tens of thousands of children at risk as the rainy season approaches, an international health charity has warned.
Two thirds of CAR’s population - 3.2 million people - remain cut off from health services more than two months after rebels seized control of the chronically unstable country in a March 24 coup.
Arvind Das, country director at aid group Merlin, said thousands of children were dying as a result of the insecurity because their families could not get medical help and did not have enough food.
He said around 300,000 people were displaced in the southeast where many people had spent months hiding in the bush. Malnutrition, measles and malaria are major concerns.
“I would say around 70 percent of clinics (in the southeast) are now completely dysfunctional because the equipment has been looted, the drugs were taken away and medical staff had to flee,” Das told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the capital Bangui.
“Most families are unable to access those few clinics and hospitals which are still open. We can be sure that this is causing needless loss of life – particularly amongst children under five, who are much more vulnerable when faced with life-threatening but treatable illnesses.”
Before the coup one in 10 children died before their fifth birthday, but Das predicted this could treble in the south.
“In the southeast, I fear the numbers (of children dying) could be quite high. We're talking of thousands. It’s a very direct consequence of the conflict. The families have fled to the bush where there is no food, nothing. And there are the complications of the (rainy) season.”
Das said they were particularly worried that more people would fall sick with malaria in the coming weeks because of the higher risk of infection during the rainy season which lasts until July/August.
There have also been outbreaks of measles in Bangui and Bouar in the southwest where Merlin has launched vaccination drives to reach 125,000 children.
Malnutrition is another threat. Das estimated the number of children Merlin was treating for acute malnutrition had trebled during the crisis.
The U.N. envoy to CAR, Margaret Vogt, recently said 57,000 children under five were at risk of starving, but Das said he thought this was an underestimate.
He said maternal and infant deaths were also likely to rise because expectant and new mothers – particularly those hiding in the bush - could not get medical help. “Security urgently needs to improve so that we can reach more people,” Das added.
He said Merlin, which has worked in CAR since 2007, was trying to negotiate with different armed groups in the southeast to improve access to communities.
Procuring drugs has been another problem in the last two months. “We’ve had deliveries come into the country and even before we could receive them they were looted,” Das added.
Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements, launched its insurgency last December, accusing President Francois Bozize of reneging on a 2007 peace deal. The rebels seized the capital Bangui in March, forcing Bozize to flee into exile.
The alliance’s leader, Michel Djotodia, has been named interim president and is charged with leading the nation to elections within 18 months. But he has struggled to rein in his fighters who have been accused of grave human rights abuses.
Das said the picture in the southeast was complicated by the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army - a notoriously brutal rebel group originally from northern Uganda. He said the LRA had exploited the turmoil in CAR to make further inroads into the country.
African military chiefs recently agreed to more than double a regional peacekeeping force deployed in CAR, which remains one of the least developed countries in the world despite deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium.