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A young physician’s perspective at the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty

March 4, 2011

by Ogebe Onazi, Nigeria

It is an honor to speak on behalf of IPPNW and the IANSA network today at the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty second Preparatory Committee Meeting.

Ogebe Onazi

Dr. Ogebe Onazi of Nigeria addresses the Arms Trade Treaty PrepCom at the UN

I am convinced that if an ATT is to make a meaningful impact on the ground it has to address the health and humanitarian impact of illicit and irresponsible arms transfers. I am one of the people who have to treat victims of gun violence, and heal the physical and mental wounds left by these weapons. When someone arrives in my emergency room, I don’t know if the gun or bullet is legal or illegal; all I know is that the person is bleeding and I try to save a life.

I am a Physician from Nigeria, a country situated in the global South. According to the World Health organization there is 1 doctor for every 2500 people in Nigeria and this compares to one doctor for every 370 people in the United States. This disparity demonstrates the severe lack of human resources to meet the health demands of the people in my country. Despite the heavy burden of disease including malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, resources for health care are chronically scarce; and every time resources are used to treat gun injuries, they are diverted from preventing communicable disease and malnutrition, maternal & child health care, and other critical public health services.

The expertise of the medical community is an important resource to join with expert from other fields including experts in criminal justice, security and defense on the issue of gun violence. Our voices are also important because we are the ones who are asked to bind the wounds and rehabilitate those traumatized by gun violence.

I grew up in Jos, a part of Nigeria known as the State of Peace and Tourism. It was here I had my medical training, earned my degree and the license to practice the profession that was my childhood ambition. Today in Jos, gun violence knows no bounds. We’ve had violent ethno-religious crises in 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2010 and recently in January this year which has persisted until this date leaving hundreds dead and injured. Its legacy is that the once vibrant state of peace and tourism is gradually fading.

The strain gun violence has put on our economy and our hospital is far-reaching. The cost of managing and treating the victims of gun violence is high, particularly in my part of the world where most of the population lives on under a dollar per day. In one of the cases which I managed in Nigeria was a lady that was shot in her head by a stray bullet during a gang shoot-out and the cost of immediate treatment was 700USD. The per capital health expenditure in Nigeria is about $50/year. This means for every one gunshot victim treated, 14 people may go without healthcare. This diversion of the available health care resources will also prevent treating tropical diseases like malaria which killed one million people last year in the tropical African continent.

I speak today as one of those who have participated in the management of victims of gun violence. My testimony is also the testimony of every doctor around the world who has taken care of such patients. The bullet destroys lives indiscriminately. Some victims became handicapped for life. Some lost their internal organ. Some lost their lives. Some lost their livelihood. We, the doctors are the ones that sign the death certificate and every corpse leaves someone behind who will suffer from that loss.

Today in our world, violence is among the leading causes of death for those between 15-44 years of age. The social liability in terms of health care and other economic costs amounts to billions of dollars annually, including the loss of lives and properties.

IPPNW can contribute its expert perspective to strengthen the development of the ATT making it an effective tool for reducing gun violence. Since we are a medical organization, we can contribute a public health approach which means using tools and methods that have been developed and refined in preventing infectious and chronic diseases and injuries, including polio and malaria, HIV infection, smallpox, and automobile fatalities in many countries.

The same underlying approach can also reduce gun deaths and injuries, and help create and monitor intervention programs. And, we can remind everyone that we are not talking about cold statistics, but about real people. Because numbers don’t mean as much without faces.

I’d like to tell you a little more about my work in Nigeria. In the past few years, admissions of armed violence victims to our hospitals in Jos have overwhelmed medical staff. We at the Society of Nigerian Doctors for the Welfare of Mankind, an affiliate of IPPNW, took to the radio waves and ran a series of programs on “Peace through Health” aimed at educating the public and policy makers on the consequences to human health of gun violence. We successfully reached out to the youths in Jos and we were asked to work with other youth groups on violence prevention work. We also carried out a project called One Bullet Story, again highlighting the psychosocial, health and economic effects of gun violence of those we managed.

Let me tell one personal experience. I was once robbed at gunpoint while walking to my apartment; 4 years later the psychological scar remains. I don’t walk down that road anymore; I don’t feel secure anymore. As a doctor, I can identify with many of our patients who suffer the long term psychological trauma as a result of gun violence.

The World Health Organization has declared “Violence is …. an important health problem — and one that is largely preventable. Public health approaches have much to contribute to solving it.” We urge States to work with the medical community as a partner in your efforts to prevent death and injuries from gun violence. The world looks to the Arms Trade Treaty and how it will make them safer in their communities. Health is wealth they say. Indeed, one cannot be healthy if one is not safe and secure in one’s community.

Thank you for your attention.

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