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Doctors take in new horizons

An MSF doctor treats a boy in Leer in southern Sudan

(Keystone)

The Swiss section of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides medical assistance to victims of natural disasters and war, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Representatives of this non-governmental organisation are active in 20 countries, helping people in war-torn Darfur, treating Aids patients in Mozambique and fighting tuberculosis in Kyrgyzstan, among others.

Antoine Chaix is just one of many medical volunteers who make up MSF. He is a member of the Swiss section's committee and has worked in the field on a number of occasions for the organisation.

His first mission lasted seven months and took him in 1997 to Azerbaijan's Nagorny Karabakh region to help fight tuberculosis.

"I had never come across this disease despite working for a number of years in Switzerland," he said. "To find out more, I visited similar projects in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the situation was tense. It was a whole new world for me."

Even though he was a young doctor, his job was to convince more experienced colleagues to apply World Health Organization guidelines, anything but a simple task and requiring real diplomatic skills.

For security reasons, the MSF staff were not allowed to leave their residence alone. There weren't any restaurants, in fact no distractions whatsoever.

"Team spirit is extremely important," Chaix told swissinfo. "You spend all your time working and living with the same people."

Experience

Until 2002, he worked in Kazakhstan, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, long enough to build up a lifetime of memories.

"In Sierra Leone, there was no medical care available in the east of the country, but refugees including starving children were arriving there in massive numbers," he said.

The French doctors, as they are sometimes called, quickly set up a centre there to help around 100 children, a hugely satisfying outcome according to Chaix. But there is a dark side to such stories.

"I remember watching a two-year-old child suffering from cholera literally die before my eyes. I had to learn that there was a lot we could do, but that we could not help everyone."

MSF works mostly in crisis areas and war zones. Its teams can be found in most of the planet's hot spots, such as after the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, in Sudan's Darfur region or in Lebanon this summer.

"Our emergency teams are always on the ground in a very short time," said Chaix. "Often the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and ourselves are the only ones on the spot, so we have developed some synergies even if our missions differ."

Aids

The doctors who now work for MSF are different to their predecessors. New programmes now deal with fighting Aids and resistant forms of tuberculosis, a huge challenge according to Chaix, a general practitioner.

"Aids is a terrifying pandemic that is spreading throughout the world," he said. "Each year, it kills three million people, the equivalent of ten tsunamis, and Africa is worst off."

MSF has been offering Aids treatments since 2001, with around 80,000 people getting antiretroviral therapy. The organisation has also been demanding cheaper access to drugs since 1999.

"If generics were produced massively in countries like India, the price of treatment per patient and per year would drop from thousands of dollars to just $300," added Chaix.

Precarious

Humanitarian work has also become more dangerous for MSF. Its members followed the arrival of foreign soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan very quickly, causing some parts of the population to assimilate them to invaders.

Chaix reckons this is why five MSF representatives were killed in Afghanistan in 2003, even though the organisation is careful to highlight its independence.

When he returns from one of the planet's many hotspots to the Swiss health system, one of the world's most expensive, Chaix says he finds his marks very quickly.

He is always surprised how fast he slips back into his bad old ways. "You get upset about the tram being three minutes late, whereas before you were quite happy if you could get from A to B within a day," he admitted.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein

Key facts

Antoine Chaix was born in Geneva in 1964.
Between 1997 and 2002, he worked for MSF in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.
Today, he is a general practitioner in Zurich and is a committee member of MSF Switzerland.

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Médecins Sans Frontières

MSF is an international humanitarian organisation, offering medical services worldwide for the victims of natural disasters and war.

The parent organisation was founded in 1971 in reaction to the Biafra crisis in Nigeria. Bureaucracy and government meddling had hindered humanitarian aid to the region.

MSF considers itself to be independent and apolitical.

Its members also consider it their duty to report abuses they witness.

MSF Switzerland was founded in 1981.

MSF operates in 72 countries, the Swiss section in 20.

In 1999, the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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