Preventing Disability in South Sudan

Handicap International devotes significant resources to help prevent those in at at-risk communities from getting injured. 

People displaced from their homes because of conflict or natural disasters are particularly vulnerable to disability. Besides the increased possibility of injury, severe malnutrition—especially in children—can lead to permanent physical and cognitive disabilities.

Disability prevention is a core part of our mission in South Sudan, a new country struggling to find stability in a region that has been at war for 50 years. According to the United Nations, recent armed conflict and food shortages in Sudan have forced 170,000 refugees into camps in South Sudan. The bulk of these refugees live in camps in the Upper Nile district, a focal point for our emergency specialists.

Handicap International Project Manager Audrey Lecomte, who has been examining malnourished children in the camps, reports disturbing findings about their general health. “Forty percent of the children we've examined show clear signs of development delays,” says Lecomte. “This is worrisome, yet not surprising since malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development.”

“When a child grows up in poor circumstances and doesn't get sufficient or appropriate food, he or she might skip a step in the development process: The child won't learn how to sit, stand, or walk,” says Handicap International Physiotherapist Valérie Dardaunet. “Moreover, a malnourished child that once was able to walk will find that his body has difficulty doing normal things. It's possible he will forget how to walk or to sit. If we don't intervene to stimulate the muscles and trigger the child's reflexes, he might develop a disability for life.”

Handicap International physiotherapists and local people recruited and trained by the organization are working with these children in mobile clinics managed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “[Through special exercises] a child's muscles will be stimulated and he or she will learn how to sit, stand, and walk,” says Lecomte. “We will also show the mothers of those children how they can repeat these exercises with their children at home.”

Motivating parents to take an active role in improving their children's psychological health is also important says Dardaunet: “The children who arrive in the camps are often traumatized or isolated from their parents. Even when they are with their family, they sometimes lack physical and emotional affection because the parents have their own anxieties. Therefore one of our most important tasks is to remind parents to play with and cuddle their children.”

In addition to helping vulnerable children in the camps, our staff works in hospitals to help those with physical and psychological injuries. We are also recruiting local people and refuges to reach out to those who might not be accessing humanitarian aid, especially people disabilities and the elderly. Once identified, our staff can connect them to the services they need.

“Handicap International teams are planning to stay in South Sudan until end of February; unfortunately this crisis isn't over yet,” says Hélène Robin, desk officer at the emergency division. “For now, the influx of refugees has stopped because heavy rain and flooding has prevented people from reaching the camps. But once the rainy season is over, people will start arriving again. By the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013, we can expect massive arrivals, which will further complicate the living circumstances in the camps.”