Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 4 News List

Hospital in Sri Lanka war zone overwhelmed


A makeshift hospital serving Sri Lanka’s war zone is badly understaffed, running out of crucial medicines and overwhelmed by a flood of civilians wounded in intense fighting between the government and rebels, the top doctor there said.

Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah said the shrinking conflict zone — where aid groups say 200,000 civilians remain trapped — has been hit by unrelenting artillery fire and gunbattles over the past three to four weeks that are killing about 40 civilians and wounding 100 every day.

The government, on the brink of defeating the Tamil Tigers and ending the 25-year-old civil war, has denied targeting civilians, and the rebels have rejected such accusations as well. But scattered reports from aid workers, health officials and evacuees implicate both sides in the attacks.

Varatharajah, the government health officer for the Mullaittivu district, said on Friday that artillery was routinely hitting civilian areas in the region.

Confirmation of the reports was not available because independent journalists are barred from the war zone.

As the government broke through rebel defenses in recent weeks and surged forward, Varatharajah said he has repeatedly evacuated to shoddier facilities. He and his patients left the district hospital in Mullaittivu before the military overran that town on Jan. 25 and relocated to a small village hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu.

But that hospital came under heavy shelling that killed at least 12 people, many of them patients. Last week, the staff and patients fled and set up a makeshift hospital in an abandoned school in the coastal town of Putumattalan.

That area was also shelled and 22 people were killed near the hospital on Monday, Varatharajah said.

The school had no reliable supply of drinking war, had only two toilets for hundreds of people and the facility was having trouble getting food, he told reporters by telephone.

The hospital had run out of penicillin and many other essential antibiotics and was facing a shortage of anesthetic as well, he said.

Only eight of the 30 doctors who normally work in the district remained, Varatharajah said, estimating that he needed at least 80 doctors to properly treat the wounded.

None of the remaining doctors are surgeons or anesthesiologists, but they were all performing emergency surgeries in an operating room they set up by throwing up a curtain and moving a table into a classroom, he said.

“We are always working,” he said, adding he performed an amputation and delivered a baby by Cesarean section on Friday morning.

Only three of the 20 nurses remained and as much as 90 percent of the rest of his staff stopped coming to work, he said.

“We are facing, in the hospital, big problems on all sides,” Varatharajah said.

With their limited facilities, the medical staff can’t treat major chest or head wounds, and most suffering those injuries die, he said. However, they have been able to treat most of the other wounded successfully, he said.

The Red Cross evacuated more than 600 patients and family members from the makeshift hospital by ferry this week, but with the fighting raging on, the hospital had 300 more wounded and another 200 patients suffering chronic disease in need of urgent evacuation, he said.

Many people were also suffering lung infections, fevers and coughs, probably from inhaling fumes and smoke from the incessant shelling, he said, coughing heavily as he spoke.

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