The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) is ramping up its response in north-eastern Nigeria, where initial assessments have revealed urgent health problems among populations in areas formerly held by Boko Haram insurgents.
In a UN news release, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, Peter Salama, said “Protracted conflict situations, such as seen in northern Nigeria – and the surrounding Lake Chad basin countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger – are among the greatest threats to health, globally.
“Not only are they associated with the world’s highest rates of death among children and pregnant women, they can also be breeding grounds for infectious diseases and outbreaks – but are too often neglected by the international community,” he added.
According to WHO, mortality rates are estimated at four times higher than emergency thresholds in some of the 15 local government areas (LGAs) formerly held by the insurgent group.
Furthermore, the rate of severe acute malnutrition is estimated to be 14 per cent, measles cases have also been reported in the area, and both the cases of polio reported by the country for the first time in two years were in Borno state. One of the cases is from an LGA that is still inaccessible to health service delivery while the other is from a newly accessible one.
Highlighting the urgency of prompt action, WHO further noted, “The immediate goal is to urgently reduce the rates of death and disease by rapidly scaling up life-saving health services.”
The agency said it would work closely with local officials and specialist agencies to address the health risks posed by malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and long-term lack of access to basic health services.
The release further noted that the working environment in the affected areas is extremely challenging and resources and capacities required to meet the enormous health service gaps are grossly inadequate.
Furthermore, insecurity is a major concern, with a number of recent attacks on humanitarian staff by insurgents, and access to the LGAs require military escort over long distances on poor roads.
The working environment is further complicated by the peaking annual wet season and there are forecasts of major floods in the coming weeks.
In response to the situation, WHO has deployed expert staff to the country for emergency operations, coordination, and data management and another team is on the ground in Borno state to help in dealing with the polio outbreak response. The agency has also dispatched emergency drugs and supplies and its emergency operations will be further reinforced by an expanded, experienced response team in coming days.
Additionally, the Government has also launched emergency polio vaccination programmes, with support from WHO and partners. The first round of vaccinations, targeting one million children, will soon be completed, according to the release.
The agency said the emergency response is built on its long-standing work in the African country, supporting the delivery of vital health services including immunisation, maternal, child and neonatal health, and HIV services.
It estimates that the funding needs for the health sector in Nigeria are estimated at about $25 million as part of the overall humanitarian response plan, which is currently being reviewed with partners in light of the latest events.