Congolese refugees are in crisis.

UPDATE: On February 2, 2022, a militia group attacked a camp for internally displaced people in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). At least 60 people were killed within the camp and others hospitalized. The camp is in the DRC’s Ituri province, which has been in a state of siege since May 2021. Following the attacks, an estimated 18,000 – 20,000 people fled to neighboring Uganda to seek refuge.

Medical Teams is present at the Bubukwanga Transit Centre in Uganda, helping to manage screening and provide medical support. With more than 2,000 people already passing through Bubukwanga, the influx is significant. The Uganda Ministry of Health released hundreds of extra COVID-19 rapid tests for Medical Teams to screen new arrivals. Our teams are on the ground screening for malnutrition and diseases, providing vaccinations, and treating other medical needs.

Thousands of Congolese refugees wait to cross the border into Uganda in February 2022.

Though the dramatic influx of Congolese refugees is new, the refugee crisis in Uganda is not. Every day, tired and sick refugees pour across Uganda’s borders, their lives uprooted by spurts of violence back home.

Cholera crisis for Congolese refugees

In 2018, the United Nations (UN) called upon Medical Teams International to stamp out one the world’s deadliest and most resilient diseases. Cholera was quickly spreading among the newly arrived refugees to Uganda.

Andrew Hoskins, then Medical Teams International’s Country Director for Uganda, hadn’t even eaten breakfast when he received an urgent call from the UN’s refugee agency. Health conditions in western Uganda had deteriorated because of the overwhelming number of refugees crossing the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hundreds of newly arrived refugees were suffering from severe diarrhea. When the call came in mid-February 2018, nearly 42,000 Congolese refugees had crossed the border into Uganda since the beginning of the year, creating a new crisis in the country’s western border districts.

“I was out of town and said, ‘Let me make a few calls and get back to you,’” Hoskins recalled of his brief conversation with the UN.

By 8 a.m., Hoskins had mobilized a team of 11 health workers to drive five hours to the Kyangwali Settlement on the shores of Lake Albert, where thousands of refugees from the DRC were coming to shore. The Medical Teams group arrived that evening and immediately went to work, using flashlights as they set up their operation, quickly moving vehicles, medicines, generators and equipment. Medical Teams staff performed health screenings and found safe drinking water. Along with partners, we helped train 156 community health workers to support the response.

An innovative new tool was used to monitor the case load. Clinic workers used a mobile app called the Health Information Program (HIP) to quickly and accurately report the rising tide of refugees showing signs of cholera. Developed by Cambia Health Solutions for Medical Teams International, the app stores data in the digital cloud. In lieu of paper reporting tools, it saved clinic staff time and much-needed resources.

Less than a week after the outbreak, the breadth of the Congolese refugee crisis came into focus. Before Medical Teams arrived, there had been at least 1,000 cases of cholera in the district in one week, including 28 deaths, according to the UN’s refugee agency. The number of deaths was two times the UN’s acceptable threshold, signifying that the crisis could deteriorate further without quick action.

Just a couple of days later the number of deaths dropped to zero. “We were only able to do this because of our highly trained staff who had been put on stand-by and were ready to move in immediately,” Hoskins said.

The response had quashed the spread of cholera, one of the fastest-moving and deadliest infectious diseases among deeply vulnerable groups.

“In an event like this, where there’s no (existing) infrastructure or support, a disease like cholera is a huge health risk for the refugees, the local community, and the entire country,” Hoskins said.

Congolese refugees living in cramped living conditions where cholera can spread quickly.

Continued support for refugees in Uganda

Controlling the spread of cholera was only one of Medical Teams’ recent efforts to protect the growing number of Congolese refugees. In the days leading up to Christmas in 2017, the UN called Medical Teams to request we bring our expertise to treat the influx of refugees. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly through the holidays to serve families who had lost everything back home.

Today, Medical Teams focuses on providing life-saving primary health care and nutrition services in nine refugee districts in Uganda, serving more than 700,000 refugees and 300,000 Uganda nationals. Through roughly 65 health facilities, more than 1,700 local staff, and a network of 1,600 village health teams, Medical Teams Uganda provides community systems strengthening, direct health services, and health systems strengthening projects alongside Uganda’s District Health Offices, Office of the Prime Minister, and Ministry of Health.


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Note: Portions of this post were originally published in April 2018.