UNICEF released a statement this week warning of the fast-growing cholera outbreak in the Sahel region of west and central Africa. So far this year, 29,000 people have been infected and 700 killed by cholera in this region alone. With the rainy season approaching, the rate of infection is expected to increase even faster in the next few months.
Experts believe that poor sanitation and overcrowding are responsible for cholera build-up in rivers. Transmission then occurs through contact with fish contaminated with the bacteria, which accumulate under the scales. Because women and children in the region are often responsible for cleaning fish, they are at greater risk of infection.
The severity of the outbreak this year is linked to famine in the region. Unpredicted crop failures in 2011 have resulted in hunger for 23 million people. The resulting malnutrition has left many people, especially children, less able to fight infections like cholera.
The outbreak has also been confounded by conflict and displacement in Mali. Since March, armed groups have occupied the northern regions of the country. As a result, 150,000 people have been internally displaced and 180,000 are seeking refuge in other countries, creating unstable environments where access to clean water, food, and treatment is limited.
These factors have combined to result in three times as many cholera cases as last year. Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF acting regional director for West and Central Africa explained, “Malnutrition, displacement, and now rains in some parts of the Sahel create the ideal breeding ground for cholera, which hits young children hardest.”
The WHO is working to increase surveillance and train health educators, but officials insist they do not have adequate funding to carry out the necessary awareness campaigns and treatment for an outbreak of this size. In particular, officials expressed concern that cholera rates usually do not peak until August-December.
Cholera is a disease caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, and causes gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea and vomiting, that can lead to dehydration and death. The disease is transmitted when a person drinks water or eats food contaminated with the bacteria. Rehydration treatments are available but not always accessible.
For more information on the disease, please consult HealthMap’s piece on last year’s outbreak in the Sahel region.