This article appears in the February 2002 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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The Forgotten Continent

The dramatic events of last year, with their focus on the Middle East and South East Asia, again focused international attention away from Africa, the continent "saturated with problems." This was the description applied by the Vatican s representative to the United Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, during a recent UN assembly, on the causes of conflict and the promotion of peace and development in Africa. He was urging international economic reforms to help eliminate the root causes of wars in this troubled continent, which threaten the lives of millions of innocent civilians. New forms of 'creative solidarity are needed on the part of the international community. 'In many of the African countries, he said in a forthright speech which struck a remarkable chord in the Assembly, 'the lives of millions of men, women and children, are placed in danger by armed conflict. These conflicts are barely mentioned on the world scene while international protagonists are mobilising in other regions on the planet to put down violence and bring peace�.

The key to the resolution of these woes lies in rekindling development and establishing peace - two steps that must go hand in hand. The Archbishop said it was not enough to quell armed conflicts. The world has to address the causes, which means integrating Africa into the global economy and ending inequities. This also implies that Africa needs democratic forms of government that respect fundamental human rights. 'The world has witnessed too many situations of violence and conflict which find their roots in economic inequities,� he said and added 'the risk that the world s dispossessed may turn to violence is real�.

A crucial part of the problem remains foreign debt. The interest on these loans often surpasses the national income in many areas. Citing Pope John Paul�s frequent calls for debt relief, he said the Vatican was deeply gratified that some steps are being taken to relieve the burden on some of the poorest countries. But he firmly emphasised that international agencies must make sure that the funds made available by debt relief actually reach the poor, through additional spending in areas like health care and education. In the past this was not so: funds frequently found their way into the disposal of tyrannical regimes without regard for those for whom they were intended. Religious communities, often in the front lines of the fight against poverty in Africa, could help ensure that the poor are indeed the beneficiaries of debt relief. Overall, the Archbishop said, rules might be made more flexible so that more countries could qualify for such forms of debt relief.

As an example of what can be achieved by charitable agencies, the Guild can be proud of its association with and support of Matercare International founded by Professor Bob Walley in Canada. It is an international organisation of health professionals dedicated to the care of mothers and babies, both unborn and born, through new initiatives of service, training and research, that are designed to reduce the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality, morbidity and abortion, in accordance with the teaching of Evangelium Vitae.

In Ghana it has co-operated with the national health authorities and the hierarchy in the establishment of a unique system of care for pregnant women. Pioneering the use of prostaglandins for post-partum haemorrhage, it has opened up a simple and efficient treatment for the control of this hitherto neglected cause of countless deaths and incapacity in the developing world. A Birth Trauma Centre is being constructed in Accra on land donated by the Archdiocese of Cape Coast for the surgical repair of obstetric fistulae. It is now well recognised that this horrifying complication of obstructed labour is responsible for the misery and virtual isolation of mothers when they return to their villages.

John Kelly, of the Birmingham branch, has been a pioneer in the treatment of obstetric fistulae for many years and regularly visits African countries demonstrating the technique and training local medical personnel in its alleviation.

Members of the Guild have worked in African countries both in their elective periods and often on a career basis; within Africa there is no lack of expertise or knowledge of the relief necessary to reduce the 'saturation of problems� occurring in this benighted continent.

The Medical Missionary Society of the Guild must also be mentioned in this litany, for it responds generously to requests from hospitals and mission aries for medical aid on a continuous basis.

Perhaps the greatest problem is now the prevalence of HIV/ AIDS. On it there follows a paper from Carole Collins.

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