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Health leaders: Average person lives to be 40 in South Sudan

March 9, 2012 |  4:45 am

An elderly man suffering from malnutrition in the village of Walgak, South Sudan.

The jarring statistics seemed a world away from the pristine hotel reception room ringed with people in smart suits: The average person lives only 40 years. More than a third of children are malnourished. And more mothers die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world.

Lul Pout Riek was in Los Angeles to talk about South Sudan, the planet's newest nation. The numbers fell almost casually from his tongue, all too familiar to him, but they shocked Angelenos in the Century City hotel who had gathered to hear him and another South Sudanese health chief.

“Tonight we are asking you not to cry with us;  we are asking you to get involved,” Riek told his audience, which included actor Danny Glover.

“Danny,” Riek added, “we need a movie.”

A movie might help,  but Riek needs almost everything. The Sudanese physician oversees community and public health in South Sudan, a Herculean task in the newborn nation.

Doctors are scarce after decades of civil war, with fewer than two doctors for every 100,000 people. Hospitals are short on everything, including mattresses, sheets and drugs to combat malaria.

The fledgling country doesn’t have a functional blood bank, Riek said. In the rainy season, roads are useless, leaving hospitals out of reach for many people in distant villages.

Then there  are  devastating rates of HIV/AIDS, malnutrition and a slew of tropical diseases, some never seen before. Almost all the global cases of guinea worm, a menace almost eradicated elsewhere, are in South Sudan.

Oil money was supposed to save them, Deputy Health Minister Yatta Lori Lugor said. But South Sudan shut off its oil in January in the throes of a dispute with neighboring Sudan over whether it was getting its fair share of the revenue.

"The money's not there," Lugor said.

So Riek and Lugor are trying to drum up help in the United States. They came to Los Angeles at the invitation of a health technology firm whose chief executive was inspired by what he saw at a conference in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

“In Jamaica, we have a saying, ‘No problem, man,’” said Richard Stephenson, chief executive of RISARC, which hosted the Tuesday dinner with the Black American Political Assn. of California and other groups. “But these people took ‘No problem, man,’ to new heights.”

But the two men seemed surprisingly hopeful in the face of the daunting statistics that Riek rattled off, convinced that things can and will change in a country that got its independence less than a year ago.

"If people understand what we're facing," Riek said, "we believe people will help."


Independent South Sudan is jubilant, wobbly a day later

In South Sudan, oil shutoff is a matter of national pride

Witnesses give graphic accounts of South Sudan ethnic violence

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An elderly man receives treatment for malnutrition in a medical clinic in the village of Walgak, South Sudan, in February 2012. Credit: Pete Muller / Associated Press