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To kill the killer

Close to 30 million stockpiled anti-personnel mines have been destroyed by the Ottawa Convention's first deadline. In all, 44 states parties will have completely destroyed their stocks on time for the 1 March 2003 deadline.

This date marks the fourth anniversary of the Ottawa Convention prohibiting anti-personnel mines. To date, 131 states parties have ratified or acceded to the Convention, committing themselves to the total elimination of anti-personnel mines. These weapons kill and maim indiscriminately, and most of their victims are civilians.

By March, 45 states parties had complied with their obligation to completely destroy their stockpiles of landmines and with one exception all states met the deadline.

Even more importantly, the Convention has had a demonstrable effect on the ground over the same period. The number of new landmine victims has decreased significantly — by as much as 60 to 70 per cent in some areas where the ICRC is present.

The fourth anniversary of the Ottawa Convention is also an opportunity for the ICRC to remind states of the remaining challenges. Additional resources will be needed to ensure that other states parties meet their deadlines for stockpile destruction, to clear most mine-affected areas by 2009 and to give mine victims access to medical care and rehabilitation. The drive for universal adherence to the Convention must also continue, because only full implementation of the Convention will eliminate the threat that anti-personnel mines pose to innocent civilians all over the world.

The ICRC in mourning

Ricardo Munguía, an ICRC water and habitat engineer, was killed on 27 March in Uruzgan province, southern Afghanistan. Ricardo, who was travelling together with Afghan colleagues on an assignment to improve the water supply in the town of Tirin Kot, was shot by a group of unidentified assailants who stopped the vehicles in which the ICRC staff were travelling. Ricardo Munguía, who was 39, joined the ICRC in 1999 and had worked for the organization in Colombia, the Republic of the Congo and Angola.

On 8 April in Iraq another ICRC delegate was killed. Vatche Arslanian, logistics coordinator, was caught in crossfire while accompanying an Iraqi colleague home. He was part of the core ICRC team which had accepted to stay in Baghdad during the war in order to provide life-saving assistance to the victims of the conflict.

Watch out for landmines

The poster exhibition, Children against mines, opened in the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, on 2 April. On display are 80 posters designed by more than 1,000 schoolchildren from Grozny, Gudermes, Shali and Urus-Martan who took part in a competition organized by the ICRC in cooperation with the Republican Youth Centre and the local branch of the Chechen Ministry of Culture.

The competition was part of a mine-awareness programme that has been carried out by the ICRC in the northern Caucasus since 2000. As part of the programme, puppet shows and comic books have been produced, as well as an animated film using a popular local character named Cheerdig. At present, ICRC mine-awareness activities in the region are targeting children in the Chechen republic and mine-infested communities in neighbouring Dagestan, where a new puppet show was put on last month.

Silent victims of school fires

"It was a silent disaster," says Muminat Nurmagomedova, a nurse with the Dagestan branch of the Russian Red Cross (RRC). "The neighbours did not immediately realize what had happened because there were no actual cries for help."

More than 160 residents of a boarding school for deaf children in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, were sleeping when a fire broke out at two o'clock in the morning; 28 of them died in the blaze.

In all, 113, aged 10 to 17, were taken to hospital with severe burns, traumas and asphyxia. Reports suggested the fire started after electricity power lines were brought down by hurricane-force winds. The school's main building was completely destroyed.

The Russian Red Cross immediately called for help to assist the hospitalized children and their families. Youth volunteers from the RRC Dagestan branch gave blood for the affected children and RRC staff and volunteers in Moscow donated some 7,000 roubles (over US$ 200) that will be used to buy anti-bedsore mattresses and bandage material for the affected children.

Water for drought-hit Paraguayan Chaco region

When you arrive in the Paraguayan Chaco region, after an eight-hour journey west from the capital Asuncion, the signs of widespread drought are everywhere. A resident of Campo Loa, Artemio Mejara, said the Paraguayan Chaco is experiencing its worst drought in a decade. "Conditions are desperate, many of us are so weak we can barely walk," the old man said. The disaster is having inevitable economic consequences — Atemio's only son recently lost his job as a farmer.

In Boquerón, the drought has had a particularly negative impact on the subsistence farmers in the region. Almost 5,000 families in 56 indigenous farming communities have been affected.

Food and water distribution have been a key part of the International Federation's operation in Boquerón. More than 50 water collection and storage systems are being built, while trained hygiene promoters are trying to raise awareness about how to prevent diarrhoeal diseases.

The situation is not likely to improve. Early forecasts indicate that this year's harvest will be well below normal. In the middle of what is usually called 'the rainy season', there was still no sign of those much-awaited rains.

Safer fixing

Every day, it becomes more urgent for governments to provide efficient and practical measures to help injecting drug users lead healthy lives, such as increased access to treatment and harm reduction programmes. Harsh and even violent policies to force individuals to change only succeed in turning the war on drugs into a war on drug users.

That was the message from representatives of the International Federation and its partners at a symposium on 'Harm reduction: humanitarian principles in action', which came at the end of the 14th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug-related Harm in the Thai city of Chiang Mai.

The International Federation was one of the sponsors of the conference, which was attended by some 750 people including medical professionals, scientists, sociologists, therapists, counsellors and HIV and drug policy activists from all over the world.

"The scientific evidence is clear: harm reduction works. 'Social evil' policies, condemnation, harassment and even incarceration of drug users do not," said Bernard Gardiner, head of the International Federation's HIV/AIDS unit.

"What is urgently needed are treatment programmes for those who want to stop using drugs and effective harm reduction programmes to stop people from dying. The stigmatization and discrimination of injecting drug users, particularly those who are HIV-infected, continues to spread the disease around the world, also among the groups who consider themselves at low risk," he added.

Drug-related harm reduction is a new focus of the International Federation with a limited number of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world involved in activities such as needle and syringe exchange programmes.

Responding to SARS

China and the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong were the worst hit by the atypical pneumonia called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Although the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, thought to be the origin of the syndrome, saw the largest outbreak of the disease, cases were reported elsewhere in the country. The Red Cross Society of China is continuing to monitor the situation closely and is on standby to cooperate with its health ministry if requested.

Although the main mode of transmission of SARS is through body contact and body fluids, investigations in Hong Kong are concentrating on unconfirmed reports of faecal-oral transmission as well.

In response to the crisis in Hong Kong, the Red Cross ran a disease prevention campaign targeting particularly vulnerable people in the community such as the elderly. Red Cross volunteers are visiting the elderly at home to distribute hygiene kits. A total of 100,000 kits, which include sterilizing tablets, standard surgical masks, and SARS prevention guidelines, have been distributed.

"We have met with a good response from the community," says Wilson Wong, Hong Kong Red Cross deputy secretary general. "We believe our campaign helps reduce anxiety about SARS among elderly people and helps us in our mission to build a caring community in Hong Kong."

In addition to the hygiene kits, the Hong Kong Red Cross have also carried out a disease prevention campaign among the broader public through the distribution of 300,000 "Heart-to-Heart" cards. Each card has on one side prevention tips against SARS, while the other half is open for sympathy messages that can be forwarded to patients and medical staff by the Red Cross.

Elsewhere, several countries in South-East Asia, Europe and North America have seen outbreaks, particularly Canada, Viet Nam and Singapore. In Singapore, the Red Cross put ambulances on standby at the request of the government to transport suspected cases to the hospital.

In Canada, the Red Cross delivered medical supplies provided by health departments to people quarantined in their homes in Toronto and the region of York, both in Ontario province which saw the largest number of SARS cases.

"We delivered supplies on a daily basis, in order to ensure that people affected had the necessary equipment to prevent the spread of this virus and to alleviate any discomfort they experienced," said Steven Armstrong, manager of disaster services for the Canadian Red Cross.

As of June, the virus had been contained in the affected areas. This does not mean that the threat to public health from SARS is over. Authorities remain on the alert as long as the virus is not eradicated.


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