Under-Reported Humanitarian Crises

Doctors Without Borders has released their annual report on under-reported humanitarian crises. Jacki Lyden speaks with Nicholas de Torrente of Doctors Without Borders about the top ten situations that didn't make headlines in 2007.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Doctors Without Borders, the global humanitarian aid organization, has compiled its annual list of the 10 most under-reported humanitarian stories. It's the 10th year the group has done this.

We've invited in the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, Nicholas de Torrente, to find out what we should have paid more attention to.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE (Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders): Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Yeah, we've been looking at your list and I see a number of countries that have made it into the headlines - Somalia, Burma, Colombia. Are you suggesting that the human cost of these conflicts don't capture our attention?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: That's our perspective and our angle as a medical humanitarian organization with, you know, teams on the ground trying to deal with the consequences in terms of, you know, what happens to the population. I think you're right that there has been quite a bit of coverage on some of these crises but not sufficiently we feel on the consequence of the human cost of what is occurring.

LYDEN: So point to something on this list and tell me where maybe we had the political story but not the consequential human cost story.

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Burma is a good example of that. I mean, there has been a lot of focus and rightfully so on the political situation, the repressive nature of the regime, the pro-democracy demonstrations and the crackdown. What is less known the - government is at the same time repressive, and also, very neglectful of the health needs of its population. There's a very large HIV/AIDS epidemic there. There is a lot of malaria. There are a lot of cases like that. And the government is really doing very little about it.

Take for instance, Rakhine State, which is in the western part of the country. The Muslim population there is not even considered to be Burmese citizens who subjected to all forms, all kinds of abuse. That is not being reported on very much. It's difficult, of course, to get access, for journalists to cover the story, which is a common thread throughout, in fact, these crises and these under-reported stories that it is actually difficult not just for aid organizations to provide assistance but also for journalists to report.

LYDEN: You also mentioned the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Now, disease wasn't really in the headlines this year as it has been in the past. For example, we didn't hear as much about AIDS maybe because a lot of have been done to combat it. There was the SARS epidemic. So what about drug-resistant tuberculosis?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: In the case of TB, it's really the neglected of the major killer diseases. It's been actually on the rise because of the co-infection with HIV/AIDS that is driving the epidemic particularly in Southern Africa. But also, the failure and the ineffectiveness of the approach to prevent and treats TB that is leading to much higher rates now of multi drug-resistant TB, about half a million people last year was thought to have been infected by it.

And really the treatment options that we have are very, very insufficient, inadequate, highly toxic, and ineffective. And there was this much greater effort than this to be paid to research and development and to new tools, new approaches to be able to deal with this problem. It's a really a runaway threat in some sort of global health.

LYDEN: The fourth item on your list, I thought, might have been a good news story - expanded use of nutrient dense ready-to-use foods crucial for reducing childhood malnutrition. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: There is really hope on the horizon for tackling acute childhood malnutrition, which is the leading cost of deaths of children under 5, about half of all deaths of children under 5-years-old are associated with malnutrition. And now, there are these new products which are ready-to-use nutrient dense foods that don't need cooking, don't need preparations. And they are specially formulated really to deal with acute episodes of malnutrition. And so kids can be treated at home. So it's a whole new field that is opened now, a new approach. And it's much more effective and can really - we have a prospect of making a major, major turn, not just in sub-Saharan(ph) Africa but also in Southeast Asia, the malnutrition hotspots of the world.

LYDEN: You don't say that these are the 10 worst crises in the world that Doctor Without Borders is talking about. You say they're the most under-reported. How crucial is the media to getting? And I don't mean to pat my colleagues on the back or thump them in the nose here. But how important is it?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: The sheer fact that you have media attention does not necessarily lead to, you know, appropriate solutions. We've had lot of attention to the situation in, of course, in Iraq and in Sudan and Darfur, in particular. And those are not on our list, not because they're - as you point out - they're not serious in terms of the humanitarian issues but because they are getting quite a bit of attention.

So the connection between media attention and solutions is not automatic. But if there is no media attention, if there is really - it's not even on the radar screen, if it doesn't even register, the problem doesn't even exist for policymakers, the discussion doesn't take place.

LYDEN: Can you point to anything on your list from 2006 that because it was there really got action the next year?

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Well, the situation in Haiti has improved quite a bit. Whether it's because it has received more media attention and that is a debatable point. But definitely, the situation in Haiti has increased the levels of violence in particular in the capital city, Port-Au-Prince, have decreased. And we see a change in the pattern of patients reaching our programs, less trauma cases than was due to violence. That was the case a few years ago. So these are positive developments. As soon as things improve, we are more than happy to drop them from the list and to recalibrate our programs.

LYDEN: Nicholas de Torrente is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders. He spoke to us from Montreal.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DE TORRENTE: Thank you, Jacki.

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