SA doctors to the rescue in Somalia

18 September 2011 - 03:06 By Brett Horner
Paediatrician Amith Ramcharan examines a child outside a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Countless lives have been saved by a team of doctors from South Africa Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Paediatrician Amith Ramcharan examines a child outside a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Countless lives have been saved by a team of doctors from South Africa Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

Now we know God lives in Mogadishu." These words were uttered by Johannesburg gynaecologist Zwide Nxumalo, referring to the amazing resilience of Somalia's population.

In the past week, 6000 desperate Somalis walked through Forlanini Hospital's doors, where Nxumalo has volunteered her medical services in the capital, Mogadishu.

Many received treatment for the first time in two decades.

Waiting for them were 29 doctors from South Africa, part of the largest humanitarian mission by Gift of the Givers.

GPs, gynaecologists, paediatricians, dieticians and pharmacists came together under the roof of the only unscathed building in the Abdi Aziz district, where more than a million people live.

Surrounded by the ruins of civil war, they treated diseases such as measles, meningitis and pneumonia. Most common ailments, though, were symptoms of the crippling famine - malnutrition, diarrhoea and dehydration.

"I had so many moms tell me their children couldn't sleep at night because every time they heard a shot, they would get scared and start crying," said Dr Zahed Abdool, a doctor from Standerton in Mpumalanga.

For three weeks now, the organisation has been running feeding centres out of four camps in Mogadishu housing thousands of displaced families.

Patients came from as far as 170km away. The SA doctors worked 10-hour days in oppressive heat and humidity.

At least 70 Somalis were operated on for gunshot wounds, tumours, amputations and bone replacements.

Some of the orthopaedic procedures were carried out in three other hospitals - Banadir, the largest in Mogadishu, Madina and St Martino.

Hospital managers sent taxis to fetch patients they knew were in need of surgical treatment.

St Martino, near the Hamar-Weyne market in the centre of the capital, treated 16 survivors with severe trauma following a massacre in Puntland in the north of the country.

Forces of the interim government there entered a village almost three weeks ago and opened fire, killing 25. The incident has never been made public.

Madina has not had the services of an orthopaedic surgeon during the 21 years of civil war. On Friday, it had three from South Africa.

The day before, eight more doctors flew in to replace three colleagues who had returned to South Africa. The entire mission left Somalia yesterday.

The medical team lost only three patients, all in the final stages of severe malnutrition.

Somalia is in the middle of its worst drought in 60 years, and four million people will face starvation by the end of the year, according to the UN.

Two decades of internal conflict have compounded the misery, and guns rule the streets.

Gift of the Givers has now sent 11 cargo planes and five ships to the country, carrying 177 tons of medical and food aid since the crisis began in April.

The organisation, under the leadership of Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, has also opened feeding centres serving 20000 displaced Somalis in four camps.

Countless lives have been saved by the emergency intervention.

If all goes well, in seven months' time, a boy called Abdi or a girl named Faisa will be born to Ismail Mohammed and his wife, Marwa.

"I just hope my child is born into a better time," said Ismail, 32, this week.

The couple abandoned their grazing lands in Lower Shabelle two months ago, when their 63 cattle and 80 goats and sheep died. On their journey to Mogadishu, two of their children died and were buried on the outskirts of the city, leaving the couple with one surviving child.

Marwa was critical when she came to Forlanini for emergency treatment, and doctors surprised her with an ultrasound scan showing the tiny foetus.

Her safe discharge on Wednesday was a highlight of the trip for Dr Khalid Coovadia, who admitted the family three days earlier.

"She was on the verge of death," said Coovadia.