Friday, April 1, 2011

In Northern Africa, hope emerges

Humanitarian doctor to give presentation on Southern Sudan

Express Staff Writer

A young girl sits in her village in Southern Sudan. Photos courtesy of Dr. Thomas Burke

As political turmoil and revolt in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya garnered daily headlines in early 2011, the people of another North African region were—rather quietly—drafting plans to become the world's next new republic. It is called Southern Sudan, a verdant, impoverished swath of territory in a nation shattered by decades of civil war.

Sudan—the largest country in Africa, positioned south of Egypt and west of Ethiopia—has long been rocked by conflict between the ethnically Arab people of the north and the African blacks in the south. Now, the south is scheduled to become independent in July, after southerners overwhelmingly voted in a January referendum to secede from the north. The vote was the result of a 2005 peace accord that ended a war that had raged on for most of the last 50 years. Hopes for success are high, but in a land where diseases flourish and health care is often unavailable or outdated, obstacles permeate the landscape.

"It's an incredible challenge but it's a really exciting time," said Dr. Thomas Burke, chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Global Health and Human Rights. Burke, an expert on Southern Sudan who has been doing humanitarian work in the region for three years, will speak about the state of the emerging nation and its possibilities in a free lecture and slide show in Ketchum on Wednesday, April 6. The presentation—called "A New Country: Southern Sudan"—starts at 6 p.m. in The Community Library.

After being invited to Southern Sudan by a friend working for the World Bank, Burke was troubled by the region's lack of infrastructure, education and medical care. The region has the highest maternal death rate in the world—one in six mothers dies during childbirth, he said. One in four children born dies by the age of 5. An estimated 87 percent of the people can't read or write.


"I don't think there are other places that are more challenging," he said. "There is no place on Earth that has less infrastructure than Southern Sudan."

Burke—who spends about one-quarter of his time in Southern Sudan—is leading two major initiatives in the fledgling nation. The first is a program aimed at lowering the alarming death rates of pregnant women and their newborns. With funding from an international foundation that supports the nation's Ministry of Health, the program is training "frontline" health workers to give care to women in need.

The second initiative is one particularly meaningful to Burke—he is funding it on his own. In an effort to improve health care and put local people to work, Burke has established a unique medical school at the University of Juba. In the program, Harvard Medical School students are training Sudanese students in a curriculum based on modern medicine.

"We're creating an arc of education that's never really been seen in the world before," Burke said.

The hundreds of students are motivated to succeed and help, Burke said, but face a daunting set of hurdles. Some students were discovered to be in poor health from starvation and required food assistance, he said.

Despite the poverty, the challenges of building a nation from the ashes of war and neglect, Burke is hopeful for the future of Southern Sudan.

"The challenges are great but the opportunity for rewards is very, very high."

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