Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Indonesian Red Crescent Targets Foreign Doctors

Andreas Harsono

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Feb 1 (IPS) - The Indonesian Red Crescent -- claiming there is an oversupply of ''do-gooders'' who ''do not speak the language'' -- wants all foreign doctors, helping the Indian Ocean tsunami survivors in Aceh, to leave and hand over their emergency medical functions to local doctors instead.

Gunawan, the spokesman for the Indonesian Red Crescent, said in a press briefing Monday: ''It is better if the international community helps us with medicines rather than sending human resources here.''

''There are language and cultural barriers with regard to the presence of foreign doctors,'' he added.

Gunawan said the Indonesian Red Crescent arrived in Aceh on Dec. 27 - a day after killer waves lashed the province killing at least 220,000 - and set up two field hospitals in the Lambaro and Pidie districts, as well as a mobile medical facility.

The Red Crescent spokesman said there is more than enough local medical staff on the ground.

''Altogether more than 390 (local) volunteers are involved in our work,'' said Gunawan.

At the present moment the local relief agency also works with volunteers from Germany, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Belgium, and the United States.

There are at least 100 aid organisations - plus U.N. agencies - operating in Aceh. Aid agencies have provided emergency food, water and shelter to about 330,000 people, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The agency says the next step is to construct temporary settlements for 150,000 families.

Because the tsunami destroyed hospitals and medical clinics, killing doctors and nurses, access to quality health care has been severely restricted. Drinking water is still in short supply and this keeps the risk of some sort of epidemic high.

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials are worried about an outbreak of measles as well as the risk of malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that measles still kills more children than any other disease that is preventable by vaccine.

Measles can lead to brain damage, deafness, blindness and mental disorders. To help prevent an outbreak of measles, WHO has set up a program to vaccinate as many children as possible - up to 65,000.

Currently, refugees in Aceh seem to be suffering from diarrhea, respiratory problems and skin infections. While these diseases are not considered life threatening, they can lead to more serious illnesses. Sanitation is still lacking and that alone can pose health risks.

To make matters worse, last week Australian doctors reported treating a case of Mucormycosis, a deadly fungus that attacks the brain, lungs, skin, kidneys and sinuses.

It is still not clear how many doctors, anesthetists, surgeons, dentists and nurses work in Aceh now.

Bernt Apeland of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Aceh used to have 700 doctors and nurses. They mostly ''disappeared'' during the tsunami, he told IPS.

Commenting on the Indonesian Red Crescent's statements, Apeland said: ''I do agree that in the long run the health service should be ran by Indonesians. But it is an emergency situation here.''

''We were asked by the Indonesian authorities to set up a field hospital. We always have 10 doctors -- five Indonesians working side-by-side with five internationals,'' he added.

But Acehnese like Ismet Nur, the co-coordinator of a grass roots relief service in Ulle Kareng -- a crowded neighborhood in Banda Aceh -- wants the foreign doctors to stay.

''We have cases where Indonesian doctors are perceived to be not as professional as their international colleagues,'' he told IPS.

And Ismet has every reason to be sceptical of the local medical services.

The relief worker's son, Mahdi Anzala, a 23-year-old college student, had a bad cut in his foot as a result of injuries sustained when he tried to flee the killer waves.

The festering sore, because it was untreated, later developed into a tumor.

Ismet first took his son to an Indonesian clinic to seek medical help.

''They asked me to register first, then to show documents from my district officials, you know -- typical Indonesian bureaucracy. Later a doctor checked him and said he should be transferred to a bigger hospital,'' he told IPS.

It is a common practice among Indonesian doctors to ask their Acehnese patients to produce their red-and-white identity cards. Red and white are the colours of Indonesia's national flag.

The cards were specifically designed for the Acehnese since the Indonesian government declared martial law in Aceh in May 2003, in its fight against separatist rebels.

Before the Dec. 26 tsunami struck, Aceh was almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there against the Free Aceh Movement, which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since then.

Ismet said he had to thank a foreign doctor - who happened to visit the relief camp where he is currently sheltering in -- for saving his son's leg.

''This Brazilian doctor saw Mahdi's wound and decided on the spot to perform surgery on a bench, using local anesthesia, to remove the tumor,'' he said. ''No questions asked, he just what he thought was best.''

''When the tumor was out it was the size of my thumb,'' added Ismet.

Ismet said his son started walking after the Brazilian doctor came back to the camp again to remove the bandages.

Murizal Hamzah, an Acehnese journalist who works for the Jakarta-based 'Sinar Harapan' daily, also considered the Indonesian Red Crescent's request ''a bit odd''.

''I have traveled and visited many hospitals throughout Aceh. Indeed, the foreign doctors are more popular than local ones because the bureaucracy of the Indonesian medical services is really notorious,'' he said. (END/2005)

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