By Lisa Schlein
The World Health Organization (WHO) and partners are scaling up emergency operations in northeast Nigeria to reach people impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency. Aid groups recently regained access to some 800,000 people who were previously cut off from outside humanitarian aid.
The WHO recently declared northeastern Nigeria an organizational grade three emergency. This is the highest emergency level ascribed to a humanitarian crisis, putting this region on a par with the dire situations in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and South Sudan.
WHO describes the health conditions and needs of 800,000 people who have only recently become accessible to the outside world as nothing short of catastrophic.
It estimates mortality rates in some of the areas are four times higher than the emergency threshold. It says the rate of severe acute malnutrition of 14 percent also exceeds the emergency threshold.
This dire situation has been complicated by a polio outbreak. For the first time since 2014, two new cases of this crippling disease were identified among children in Borno State a few weeks ago. In addition, there is an ongoing outbreak of life-threatening measles in the afflicted area.
WHO Director of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response Rick Brennan cites a number of other ongoing risks to public health.
“In addition to malnutrition, populations have been forced from their homes. They are physically exhausted. Many of them are being housed in overcrowded, unsanitary situations increasing the risk of outbreaks. The vaccination coverage rate among the children is very, very, very low indeed. And, now, we are into the wet season…and the risks of seeing increased rates of diseases, such as malaria, diarrheal diseases, as well as the vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and so on are very, very substantial,” said Brennan.
Aid workers could not access parts of Borno and Yobe state for months while fighting raged between Boko Haram and government forces.
Brennan said WHO and partners are taking immediate steps to tackle the ongoing problems despite continued security risks.
He said the government with the support of U.N. agencies has launched an emergency polio vaccination campaign. He added that the first round targeting one million children soon will be completed. Other rounds will follow.
Brennan said the WHO is also sending emergency drugs and supplies to the region.
He is appealing to donors to provide the money needed to save thousands of lives. He said WHO has received only 15 percent of its $25 million appeal. He warned many people are likely to die if WHO is unable to close this critical funding gap.