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West Timor: Red Cross improves camp conditions

19-11-1999 News Release 99/46

The ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross Society are operating 12 health-care posts in the camps for displaced people in the Atambua area near the border with East Timor. The posts, staffed by Indonesian Red Cross nurses, are open around the clock and each treats some 100 patients a day.

Four doctors work in shifts to cover the 12 posts. Dr Ilham Chaidin of the Indonesian Red Cross says that the most prevalent diseases are respiratory infections, malaria and bloody diarrhoea. He adds that many of those treated for diarrhoea are under five years of age. The posts will therefore be augmented by rehydration clinics in the coming days. These clinics will provide clean drinking water and oral rehydration solution, and their staff will teach preventive hygiene methods and sound community-health practices. They will also travel throughout the camps encouraging people to adopt practices that limit the spread of disease.

" The local health facilities were completely overwhelmed by the influx of displaced people " , says Mr Iyang Sukandar, Under-Secretary-General of the Indonesian Red Cross, who has been working in Atambua since early September. " We are convinced that the health-care posts have helped keep down the level of disease. "

Dr Jens Amlie, ICRC medical coordinator for Indonesia, confirms that refugee camps can be very unhealthy places to live. " We know from our experience elsewhere in the world that the conditions in such camps can lead to a high incidence of potentially fatal diseases " , he says. " Overcrowding prompts the spread of upper re spiratory infections such as pneumonia; stagnant water and makeshift shelters increase the chances of malaria; and improper sanitation and insufficient drinking water causes a high incidence of diarrhoea. To make matters worse, the meagre diet and the stress of being forced from their homes and having to live in overcrowded camps have the effect of weakening people's immune systems and making them more disease-prone. " Dr Amlie notes that medical care is a mere palliative and that preventive measures are needed to reduce the level of illness. The ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross are therefore building additional latrines in the camps and providing chlorine tablets to purify water for drinking. The Red Cross will also be trucking additional water into the camps and is looking into the possibility of drilling boreholes to increase the supply.

Dr Amlie emphasizes that physical and psychological well-being are closely related. The stress being endured by many of the people in the camps is reaching critical levels. " They have been through a lot, " he says. " And their future remains uncertain. However, the mere presence of medical services is comforting to the population of the camps and that alone helps reduce the level of stress. "