XIII. Humanitarian Congress by MSF

Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) is annually organizing a Humanitarian Congress for health care professionals, humanitarian aid workers and everybody who is interested in the field of humanitarian action. This year the congress was held from 28th to 29th October in Berlin/Germany under the theme “Ideals, Reality and Compromises- Do We Meet Humanitarian Needs?”

We were several students from the Medical Universities of Vienna and Innsbruck, who attended this congress out of personal interest and because we all believe that being involved in humanitarian aid should be a part of our profession as future doctors.

During two days we received a deeper insight in general humanitarian work and we could gather further knowledge of the complex logistics which humanitarian aid requires. Moreover, we could question the needs and demands towards humanitarian aid during discussions with representatives of various organizations, such as the German Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, World Food Programme, World Health Organization and of course MSF (Doctors without Borders).

The agenda was a mix of keynote speeches, discussion panels, workshops and debates: David McCoy from the People’s Health Movement, London, introduced us to the theme with a keynote speech on “Humanitarianism- Moving beyond medical rescue to poverty reduction, sustainable development and justice”.

Afterwards we could increase our own knowledge on humanitarian action during a podium discussion with Wilhelm Hensen (German Red Cross), Martin MacCann (RedR, London) and Katja Kusche (Vice President MSF Germany). All of the speakers introduced us to their work and encouraged us to ask them “what we always wanted to know but never dared to ask- Humanitarian Action for Beginners”. Katja Kusche from MSF summarized the actions which are taken by MSF when a new project is opened.

For me this was one of the most interesting parts of the congress because I hadn’t imagined this ranking of priorities: Right after the rapid, initial assessment follows a broad measles vaccination – especially malnourished children have a high risk of death due to measles infection. At third place comes the allocation of clean water and sanitation. We learned that the minimum amount of water required for one person per day is 5 liters, although 20 liter per person are to strive for (in comparison, the average German uses 122 l of water per day). Following these first 3 steps are (in this order) food supply, shelter and site planning, health care, control of epidemics, public health surveillance system, human resource management and at last the coordination with other NGOs.

With this good fundamental knowledge on the actions of humanitarian aid we moved on to a podium discussion with Michael Green, the author of “Philanthrocapitalism”, and David McCoy from the People’s Health Movement on the theme “Blessing or Curse?- Philanthropic Donors and Their Impact on International Health Policies”. At the example of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation we were introduced to the dilemma of philanthropic donations, which are questionably ignoring true needs in developing countries, but have a great influence in the world. Unfortunately there was no representative of this foundation present, so the discussion was a bit one- sided. Nevertheless it raised a topic of which most of us have never thought before.

In the next session we met Sandrine Simon from Médecins du Monde, Naemi Heita from Namibia Red Cross and Barbara Kloss- Quiroga from the GIZ Germany for the discussion on “Maternal Mortality in Africa- The Neglected Millennium Goal”. Naemi from the Namibia Red Cross showed us statistics that 70.000 women out of 215 million with unwanted pregnancy die during delivery. 7 million are still teenagers. A big part of humanitarian work to empower women happens through community empowerment- humanitarian aid workers visit villages in the countryside and educate the people in the basics of prevention (HIV), reproduction and maternal mortality.

With one simple sentence, Naemi points out the dangers of humanitarian aid and underlines the importance of community empowerment at the same time: “Nothing for us, without us”.

The second day was rather practical oriented- I was able to attend a workshop on “How to treat Tuberculosis in resource poor settings” and “How a Cholera treatment center works”. I learned that people with a TB infection have a 5-10% life time risk to develop the active disease with symptoms, but if the person is infected with HIV at the same time, the life time risk increases with 10% every year. I also found out that one TB treatment costs around 4000 Euro and that multidrug resistant TB mostly affects the drug Rifampicin. And: the TB bacteria die within 4 seconds in sunlight! This is why TB patients are taken outside in the sunlight (and also mattresses and linen for disinfection)- it’s effective and cheap.

We also got informed that 5-7 million cases of Cholera occur per year worldwide, of which 100 000 deaths result. On www.worldmapper.org you can have an unusual view on the world. Dead bodies of cholera patients are still infectious, the incubation period ranges between hours to 5 days and 80% of cases are mild trend (carriers). Our attention is then called to a small detail, which is important while working in a cholera treatment center: do not label Cholera! Call it watery diarrhea instead. Cholera has a huge stigma in developing countries and can cause panic outbreaks. And to close up with it we get another very practical and basic advice on our way: if you enter or exit a Cholera treatment unit always disinfect your hands and FEET!

Overall, this congress provided us with good basic informations on the current stand of humanitarian aid in the world. Despite the typical suspects who rather prefer to listen to themselves during a discussion (who can’t miss in a good congress), the overall atmosphere was very energetic and motivating.

Take away to finish up:  if you want to increase your chances to join MSF as a doctor (the requirements are quite high), you should learn French.

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