Since the beginning of 2011, more than 85,000 cases of cholera and 2,466 resulting deaths have been reported in West and Central Africa. According to IRIN, three multi-country epidemics are occurring, each with a different strain of the disease. The three epidemic centers are: Lake Chad Basin (affecting Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria), West Congo Basin (affecting Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo) and Lake Tanganyika (affecting Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi).
Five of the countries affected, Chad, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria and Cameroon, account for 90 percent of the cases and deaths.
This epidemic threatens to be one of the biggest epidemics that the region has ever seen.
UNICEF is currently providing treatment kits, epidemiological surveys, and conducting community awareness programs on sanitation. UNICEF also encourages inspections and disinfections to occur at all border crossings. David Delienne, UNICEF’s water and sanitation officer in West Africa, comments that to defeat cholera, there needs to be proper surveillance systems to monitor the spread of the disease. Delienne says that, right now, the surveillance systems in some areas are just not good enough.
Officials state that the epidemic could continue into 2012 with the rainy season beginning in some of the affected countries.
Cholera is a bacterial infection, caused by Vibrio cholerae. This bacterium releases a toxin inside the body causing an increased release of water in the intestines, which then causes severe diarrhea.
Someone infected with cholera may not experience symptoms. Others experience severe watery diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. The loss of fluids then leads to dehydration. If an infection such as this is left untreated, cholera can cause death within hours. Symptoms can develop any time between a few hours and five days.
Cholera is easily treatable with basic antibiotics and rehydration. Rehydration fluids are mixed with sugar and salts to replace those lost through diarrhea and vomiting. Rehydration therapy is the key element to treating cholera.
As Michel-Olivier Lacharité, program director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Chad, states, the disease is a “paradox” because it is so easy to treat, but it also is so easy to spread.
Risk factors for cholera infection include drinking, rinsing hands with, and eating foods that have been rinsed with unsanitary water. WHO explains that in areas with poor environmental management, the risk for cholera increases. For example, in slums or refugee camps, where adequate waste management systems are lacking, cholera becomes a risk. The risk for cholera further increases in post disaster settings, such as Haiti, where there has been a disruption in water and sanitation services and people inhabit overcrowded spaces. Countries reporting cholera are usually found in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia. The WHO provides maps with updated information on cholera outbreaks across the globe.
See other HealthMap updates on cholera here.