Ethiopia: Why aid continues to be of essential importance also after the disaster

by Dr. Wolfgang Toepel/SRI,  2012/04/05

The famine disaster at the Horn of Africa has mostly disappeared from public attention. However, the situation at numerous refugee camps in Ethiopia or also in Kenya remains critical. Dr. Wolfgang Toepel, an internist from Idar-Oberstein, sacrificed his skiing holiday in order to offer active aid to the people at the Melkadida refugee camp. His impressive report emphasises the necessity of medium-term medical support in a situation that is extremely difficult for the refugees.

For about two years, there have been several refugee camps with a total of 140,000 inhabitants at the Ethiopian border to Somalia. One of these camps is the Melkadida refugee camp with 40,000 inhabitants, where humedica and an Ethiopian organisation have taken over responsibility for medical care.

The external conditions for refugees and assistants are a permanent challenge: dust and heat take their toll on everyone. Photo: humedica/Sven Ramones.

At first, most of the refugees who arrived from the neighbouring country of Somalia had fled the civil war, but since last year a large number of them also fled the drought, so that the number of refugees almost doubled within a very short period of time. In Somalia, the worst drought period in 50 years is still prevailing and it has deprived an unimaginable number of persons of their basis of life.

Actually, the humedica notification came at an inconvenient moment: “Urgently wanted…”. After all, the skiing holiday in the Bernese Oberland had already been planned and booked. But a doctor had dropped out of the doctor rotation cycle and therefore humedica urgently needed someone to bridge the threatening supply gap.

Well, I had planned to go on holiday anyway, though for only one week and rather for recreation, but then I decided to organise it all differently. Two phone calls and everything was arranged. Wondering children and a disappointed wife were the first reactions in my immediate surroundings.

Getting there was no problem; within 33 hours, including 2 hours of sleep, I reached my destination: the humedica Compound near the refugee camp. A makeshift accumulation of numerous tents for accommodation, drugs and material, a sunscreen made of wood and plastic canvas, under which we were to take our meals, a sanitary unit of corrugated iron sheets with showers and toilets – that was to be my temporary home. No fridge and no internet, but guaranteed sunshine; agreeable temperatures in the morning, up to 40° Celsius on midday.

Welcome to the small humedica health station: a medium-sized building of corrugated iron sheets and wood, which is divided up into several rooms. Photo: humedica/Sven Ramones

Starting from the humedica Compound we travel to the so-called Health Post within the refugee camp every day. humedica had this health post built by local workers using cement, wood and corrugated iron and currently the building contains among other things two treatment rooms and a pharmacy. An extension is planned to be built sometime in the future. There our team, consisting of two doctors, one nurse, as well as several local employees and refugees who work at the pharmacy or as interpreters, treats up to 120 patients per day.

The main disease patterns are fever, diarrhoea, headache and pain in the limbs, dehydration, skin diseases, numerous abscesses in particular at hands and feet, minor wounds; a dramatic case with a patient having pierced her eye with a stone and a case of meningitis. The unconscious patient was brought to us on a donkey cart and after some days of treatment she had recovered once more. Besides that there was an outbreak of chicken pox. Some patients had minor wounds to their hands, which had festered and swollen substantially, so that in consequence they could hardly move their hands and suffered extreme pain.

And then there was the five-year old girl who was taken to us wrapped in a blood-soaked sheet. She pressed her legs together whimpering and frightened. When we could eventually examine her cautiously, our worst assumptions were confirmed: a traditional female genital cutting – prohibited all over the world, but a common practice here, which is implemented in secret. We treat the wound, talk to her family and ask them to bring the child again the next day. We will not see her again.

Treatment preconditions, which humedica has literally created from scratch, are very good, as we have all necessary drugs and sufficient staff at our disposal. Cooperation with the bandaging room and the pharmacy is running smoothly.

Dr. Wolfgang Toepel sacrificed his skiing holiday in order to help at the Melkadida refugee camp. Photo: humedica/Sven Ramones

Treatment conditions, however, although I remember them from Darfur (Sudan), are once more a real challenge: dust wherever you look or reach, patients who describe their complaints almost without drawing breath and go on and on to the interpreter (but hardly take notice of me) and keep indicating where they hurt during the examination, showing where their actual complaints are, namely not in the place doctor is currently examining.

It is noisy and waiting patients keep glancing into the room; there is noise from the construction works next door, there is the strong Arabic accent of the interpreter and the heat. Sometimes the only thing that helps is a gush of water down your t-shirt. Also our patients are sweating, due to a lack of soap they have not washed for days, the children’s ears are clotted, caked and pus oozes from some of them. According to the interpreters, some of the children have never before seen a white person and therefore some of them accept us only reluctantly or express their doubts vociferously. Some of the patients seem apathetic; they enter without saying a word of greeting and leave the same way. Is this due to the desolation of their situation as refugees?

After finishing our work we return to the humedica Compound and hope that it will cool down in the evening. The mineral water in our bottles is about 35 degrees warm; drinking sufficiently, also during the day, is essential.

At night, we sometimes get company. The scorpion that visited us one night was actually quite nice, but we had definite objections to being visited by a camel spider whose body is 15 centimetres long – almost as long as my Swiss knife. Her poison can cause the affected limb to be paralysed for up to 5 days.

What I like is meeting the employees of other relief organisations from all over the world and some locals. The Ethiopian woman Fikirte – her name means “love” – is really nice and makes admirable efforts to teach us her language.

My summary: for me this mission was an unforgettable experience. Although on the first glance it may seem to be only a drop in the ocean from a medical perspective, for many patients it means life-saving aid. And that is enough.

Please continue to support our relief measures at the Horn of Africa by means of your donation also in future. Thank you very much.

      humedica e. V.
      Donation reference “Famine relief Africa
      Account 47 47
      Bank code 734 500 00
      Sparkasse Kaufbeuren
      IBAN: DE35734500000000004747

You can also achieve great results by means of sending a short text message: simply send a text message containing the reference DOC to +49 8 11 90. Your mobile bill will be charged with 5 euros, and 4.83 euros of this amount will be channelled directly into the humedica project work.

Waiting for urgently needed medical aid: the humedica assistants treat up to 120 patients per day. Photo: humedica/Sven Ramones

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