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28 September 2004Archive Subscribe for free by E-mail or Human News RSS feed

The Congo War

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo may have claimed more lives than any other since World War II. Most of the deaths have not been directly from violence, but from malnutrition and disease caused by the upheavals of war and the resulting breakdown of health care and the economy. The International Rescue Committee aid agency estimated 3.3 million people died in excess of the number normally expected between August 1998 and November 2002. Since then, fighting has decreased but not ended.

DR Congo, a mostly forest-covered land in central southern Africa and the third-largest country on the continent, has over 50 million residents. Before the war, the diamond- and copper-rich nation's economy and health systems were weakened by years of corruption and economic controls under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, contributing to an already alarming infant mortality rate of 10% and life expectancy of only 49 years in 1998.

The Rwandan civil war and massacres of 1994 helped trigger the war in DR Congo (called Zaire under Mobutu's rule). Hutu militias that participated in the Rwandan massacres fled into eastern Zaire after a Tutsi-led government took power in Rwanda. These Hutu militias joined forces with the Congolese army to fight ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire, and these Tutsis formed a counter-militia, which was supported by Rwanda and Uganda. Laurent-Desire Kabila led this coalition west into the capital, Kinshasha, and overthrew Mobuto in May 1997 to seize control of the country, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Darfur Violence Continues

A civil war in Darfur, western Sudan, is now a humanitarian crisis. Long conflict between African farmers and Arab herders over sparse resources and perceived neglect from central government led African rebels to attack government posts in 2003. Sudan responded by coordinating attacks with Arab fighters called Janjaweed against villages. Tens of thousands were killed, injured, or raped, and over two million were driven from their homes or fled when the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias destroyed their houses and food stores. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "terrible crimes have been committed" and urged Sudan to prevent attacks.

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Polio Nears Eradication

Former US President Franklin Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by the polio virus, said, "The fight against infantile paralysis [polio] is a fight to the finish, and the terms are unconditional surrender."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been fighting to completely eradicate polio in the same kind of effort that wiped out smallpox by 1980. That goal is now in sight. Since its start in 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the largest public health effort in world history, has eliminated indigenous polio from all but 6 countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan and Egypt. Last year, fewer than 800 children were paralyzed by the disease.

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus which enters the mouth, grows in the gut, and then invades nerves. It can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under three. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Amongst those paralyzed, 5%-10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. Before the GPEI, poliovirus was endemic in over 125 countries on five continents, paralyzing more than 1000 children a day.

A child receives oral polio vaccine.

Vaccination prevents polio. The oral form of the vaccine can be given by volunteers with little training and does not require sterile injection equipment. The vaccine is relatively inexpensive: about 8 US cents a dose.

Two billion children have been immunized in the GPEI with the cooperation of over 200 countries and 20 million volunteers. The $3 billion used in the effort came from the US, Japan, the UK, the Netherlands, the World Bank, and other countries and organizations, including half a billion dollars from the service organization Rotary International.

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Leno To Retire

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