Cameroon struggles to cope with cholera outbreak

International aid agencies are rushing urgent supplies to Cameroon as the country deals with its worst outbreak of cholera in six years. The outbreak started in May in the country’s Far North region and spread to the neighbouring North region causing over 2,199 confirmed cases of cholera resulting in 163 deaths. UNICEF and other agencies are rapidly distributing supplies for medical workers and water treatment kits for families, along with medication. The waterborne infection is highly contagious but preventable with clean water and sanitation.

Over five million people live in the Far North and North regions of Cameroon and the regions share borders with Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. Parts of the Far North region have suffered extensive flooding over the past month, leaving many communities increasingly vulnerable to disease. UNICEF said it was concerned any further spread of the outbreak could have serious consequences for women and children across the sub-region. Al Jazeera has reported outbreaks in Chad and Nigeria with 400 deaths in these two countries in the past few months.The latest outbreak was triggered by unusually heavy rains which caused severe flooding and landslides. The landslides submerged houses and made traditional pit toilets unusable. Safe drinking water is rare in the Far North region due to drought and the poor are turning to untreated water from hand-dug wells, increasing vulnerability to cholera and other water-linked diseases. Authorities have begun disinfecting wells and other water points and are asking communities to practice proper hygiene. “We are urging people to be careful with the food and water they consume, and with how they handle the remains of people who died of cholera,” one official said.

All 13 regional hospitals in the Far North are full with little room to treat more cases. Cameroon’s minister of public health Andre Mama Fouda said the risk of cholera spreading further south was very high with Cameroon still in the middle of its rainy season. “We are calling on the population to adopt strict personal hygiene and follow food and water consumption guidelines,” he said. “They should avoid drinking unchlorinated water and eating at makeshift street markets where food is not well preserved.”

Superstition is hampering relief efforts. Some communities have stopped attributing the increasing number of deaths to cholera. A volunteer leading said the hardest thing was stopping people from being sceptical. “For example, they believe that if you’re not a sorcerer, cholera can’t get you, and so it only affects sorcerers,” he said. Another volunteer said local religious leaders told everyone to stay away from the fields because of the risk of getting cholera. The volunteers’ message to people is simple: stop defecating in the open, use latrines, wash hands with soap and boil water before use.

According to the World Health Organisation, cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. The infection is caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium vibrio cholerae. The short incubation period of between two hours to five days can make an outbreak explosive in impact. There are up to five million cases every year with 120,000 fatalities. Control measures rely on prevention, preparedness and response.

Eighty percent of cases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration salts. But oral rehydration treatments remain scarce in the world’s poorest countries. Some have blamed Big Pharma for making drug treatments too expensive but writing in The Wall Street Journal Alec Van Gelder of the International Policy Network puts the blame on lack of investment in domestic health care infrastructure. He said leaders in July’s AU summit were confronted with WHO figures showing only six member countries have met their 2001 pledge to invest 15 percent of their national output on health care. “The real global public health problem is that for every aid dollar African governments receive for health care they divert up to $1.14 of their own resources to other areas,” Van Gelder said.

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