In Mogadishu's overcrowded hospitals


August 17, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Halima and her baby Abdulrahman in one of Mogadishu, Somalia's overcrowded hospital. Abdulrahman is suffering from severe acute malnutrition and watery diarrhea, a symptom of cholera. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I joined the Mercy Corps team on an assessment mission to Mogadishu, where the drought and famine are taking the greatest toll. I have been responding to humanitarian emergencies with Mercy Corps for nearly a decade and have witnessed terrible suffering — but the situation in Mogadishu is truly the worst humanitarian crisis I have seen.

I visited the hospitals to assess the general conditions and identify how Mercy Corps can assist. What I found was truly heart wrenching. The hospitals are overcrowded and overstretched. Everywhere I looked I saw mothers holding babies sitting on the floor on scraps of cardboard because there are no beds or chairs available. Examination tables completely filled with little babies on IVs with their mothers anxiously watching them, filled with fear that they may die at any moment.

I spent an hour at a large hospital and witnessed three children, all less than four years old, die. Cholera is rampant. On Tuesday the World Health Organization stated that Mogadishu is now experiencing a cholera epidemic.

In the hospital, I met Halima, the mother of seven-month-old Abdulrahman Abshir. Abdulrahman is suffering from severe acute malnutrition and watery diarrhea, a symptom of cholera.

Halima and her eldest daughter have been at the hospital for several days getting treatment for Abdulrahman, but he remains very weak.

Halima, her husband and their six children had been living in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia where they raised cows and goats. Years of drought killed all their animals and left them with nothing. The family came to Mogadishu in search of food.

Measles and malaria are everywhere, too. At the hospital I talked with more than 10 parents who said their children had the measles as well as cholera.

I spoke with Abdul Noor, the father of Shagay, a 16-year old boy who was so malnourished he looked like he was under 10 years old. The father told me he had walked with his eight children for 40 days to reach Mogadishu. Before they started their long journey, his wife died in the village from famine. His children were all hungry and sick, so he had no choice but to try to get to Mogadishu to try to get food and medical care for his children. Now they are living in a camp and trying to get food and praying that Shagay pulls through.

Shagay tried to talk to me but was too weak. He ended up just gesturing to his stomach and his father explained he was telling me he was hungry, but had terrible stomach pains from the diarrhea. He also has measles, according to the nurse.

The hospital is so overstretched that there is not room or time to properly screen and separate or quarantine the incoming patients, so kids with measles and cholera are side-by-side with kids who are malnourished, but not infected — yet. The conditions are overwhelming.

The living conditions in the camps are a major cause of the cholera outbreak. When al Shabab forces pulled out of the city a little over a week ago, people who had been starving in the drought-ridden areas of Somalia all headed to Mogadishu in hopes of finding food and assistance. The newly-arriving people are setting up camp anywhere they can find a tiny patch of land. In most of these new camps there are no toilets, no sanitation services and inadequate access to clean water — basically a breeding ground for cholera.

This crisis is being called the “children’s famine” and I am seeing first-hand why. But it is not a hopeless situation. I went back to the hospital a day later and found Halima still holding tight to her baby Abdulrahman.

“He is getting better. He will survive,” she told me with amazing determination.

I believe her.