Tigray Medical Services Struggle After War Upheaval By Reuters

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5/5 © Reuters. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers and Ethiopian Red Cross volunteers prepare to distribute relief supplies to civilians in the Tigray region 2/5

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A diabetic mother died while her daughter was searching for insulin in the capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. The women gave birth unsupervised in the dark because their hospital was without electricity or staff at night. Stories from residents, medical workers, and humanitarian groups illustrate the plight of the people as Ethiopia struggles to revive a badly damaged health system in Tigray three months after clashes broke out between the army and the region’s former ruling party. the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Some hospitals barely function, without water, electricity or food, they said. Most were looted for medicine; staff members fled. “The health system in Tigray is reportedly almost collapsing,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a February 4 report, noting that only three of the region’s 11 hospitals they were working properly. Ethiopia’s Health Minister Lia Tadesse said conditions were improving rapidly. The government sent supplies to 70 of the 250 health facilities in the region, along with 10 ambulances, it told Reuters last week. “So many health facilities have been looted, so we are working to bring more equipment to the region,” he said. “The goal is to restore services, help health workers return and make sure they have supplies.” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the TPLF two months ago, but details of the devastation have been slow to emerge as communications with the region remain patchy and the government strictly controls access for journalists and humanitarian workers. Reuters has not been able to visit the region and was unable to independently verify accounts provided by residents and medical workers. Before the outbreak of fighting on November 4, most people in Tigray had easy access to a hospital or clinic, according to the Health Ministry. The conflict disrupted basic services, including diabetes treatment and maternal care, leading to “too many preventable deaths,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement on January 27. Only 30 of the 280 ambulances in the region are still available, according to OCHA. A woman described searching the town of Sheraro, north of Tigray, for pills to prevent pregnancy on December 22, after a friend told her that five men had gang-raped her. “Not a single worker was in the hospital,” the woman told Reuters by phone, saying she was too afraid of being identified. “The entire hospital was ransacked … Apart from the roof and the doors, nothing was left.” He tried a health center, but said it had also been looted. SLOW RECOVERY When French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) visited the northern city of Adigrat in mid-December, the hospital was practically deserted, it said in a statement last week. There were hardly any medicines, no food, water, or money. Some injured patients were malnourished, the group’s emergency coordinator for Tigray, Albert Vinas, said in the statement. Since then, some services have been resumed, but the hospital still does not have chemicals for its laboratory or therapeutic food for malnourished children, an Ethiopian medical worker who works there told Reuters. He asked not to be identified, because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. The hospitals in the cities of Adwa and Axum, in central Tigray, were also without electricity or water when MSF visited them. All the medicines had been stolen from the Adwa hospital and the furniture and equipment were broken, Vinas said. “I saw people coming to the hospital on bicycles taking a patient 30 kilometers away, and those were the ones who made it to the hospital,” he said. “People die at home.” MSF now supports four regional hospitals along with smaller health centers and runs mobile clinics in 15 locations. RURAL AREAS OUT OF REACH Most of Tigray’s rural areas remain off-limits to humanitarian groups due to continued insecurity or because they are not allowed to go there, aid workers told Reuters. The TPLF withdrew from the regional capital, Mekelle, and from major cities, but low-level fighting has continued in some areas. Ethiopia’s Peace Ministry said on Saturday it was “moving urgently to approve requests for international personnel movements to and within Tigray” to ensure humanitarian assistance is expanded without delay. A team from the international aid group Action Against Hunger arrived in a town west of Mekelle for the first time on January 23 and found it “quite deserted.” “We want to start having mobile health and nutrition clinics to operate in rural areas,” the group’s country director Panos Navrozidis told Reuters, but added that security was still fragile. Staffing in medical facilities also continues to be a problem. As many as 20 to 30 women were giving birth unsupervised daily in the central city of Shire because the hospital is understaffed overnight, a humanitarian worker who visited last week told Reuters. Almost all health workers in Tigray had been unpaid since the conflict began, a regional government report noted on January 8, and three health workers told Reuters last week they had not yet been paid. Health Minister Tadesse said money was being sent to local authorities as quickly as possible. The hospitals in Shire and Axum were working again, he said, although the Adwa hospital was still out of service. Help comes too late for some. One woman told Reuters that her 55-year-old mother died in Mekelle on December 4 after the family could not find insulin. Mehbrit, who asked to be identified by name for security reasons, said she tested hospitals, the Ethiopian Red Cross and other diabetics, but no one had insulin to spare. For days, she said, she would wake up suddenly every night to control her mother’s shortness of breath. “I was praying to God to bring mercy to the house,” Mehbrit said. “The insulin came 13 days after my mother’s death.”