Cholera upsurge kills more children in Sahel: UNICEF

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Dakar/Geneva: As the rainy season unfolds across the Sahel, a recent upsurge of cholera that has killed over 60 people and sickened about 2,800 this year is putting more and more people – especially malnourished children – at risk, UNICEF has warned.

Last week, an outbreak in Northern Mali left two children dead and 34 other people sick, including a growing number of children, according to Mali’s Ministry of Health. So far in 2012, cholera has killed nearly 700 people in West and Central Africa and more than 29,000 cases were reported.

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the deadly highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.

Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year. 

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria), with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali and puts more strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.

“Malnutrition, displacement, and now rains in some parts of the Sahel create the ideal breeding ground for cholera, which hits young children hardest,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Acting Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “Unless we step up our efforts immediately, cholera will continue to claim the lives of the most vulnerable families in the Sahel and spread to other populated areas with a devastating impact.”

Dr. Guido Borghese, UNICEF Principal Advisor Child Survival and Development for West and Central Africa, added: “Cholera shows us how closely linked malnutrition is to unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene. A child below the age of five who has recovered from severe and acute malnutrition will be back for treatment in a matter of days or weeks if he or she is drinking contaminated water.”

Before, during and after cholera breaks out, UNICEF works with governments, sister agencies and local partners across the region to expand access to improved water and sanitation, educate families on how to prevent the spread of the disease and equip health facilities with supplies, skills and expertise.

“If we wait until the number of cholera cases explodes before taking action, it will be too late to keep the outbreak under control,” said Dr. Borghese. “Hand washing campaigns, treatment of drinking water and awareness-raising radio programming must be carried out throughout the year. These simple measures are proven to be effective ways of preventing and containing the spread of this infectious deadly disease.”

Since the beginning of the year, over 94,000 people in nine countries in the Sahel have received supplies to treat household water and been trained on how to use them at home to keep children healthy. In Chad, for instance, the number of cholera cases has dramatically fallen from more than 5,000 to zero in a year’s time – illustrating how joint efforts can help to successfully combat cholera outbreaks.

“You can’t treat malnutrition and ignore cholera,’’ said Mr. Fontaine. “But without more funding soon, we risk undoing a lot of work already done to treat and prevent malnutrition in children.’’

In response to the threat posed by the spread of cholera in the Sahel, UNICEF and its partners are urgently ramping up their operations to prevent the emergence of new outbreaks across the region. Fontaine said additional funding for the nutrition crisis in the Sahel is critical, especially for programmes in water, sanitation, hygiene and health with about three-quarters of their financial needs still unmet.
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