West Africa: Joint News Note

Dakar/ Brazzaville — The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are warning that the current cholera emergency in West Africa is set to get much worse as rains and floods create the conditions for the disease to spread faster and further.

Already this year a total of 55,289 cases of cholera have been reported in 15 countries and 1,109 people have died. The disease is spreading fast in the countries of the Mano River Basin (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), as well as along the Congo River, (affecting people in both the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and in western Niger.

The number of new cholera cases has been made worse this year in some of the most affected countries by exceptionally heavy rains that have flooded shanty towns in some urban centres.

The number of cases so far this year in West and Central Africa is 34% more compared to the same period in 2011, and represents a deteriorating trend as many more cases can be expected in the rainy season. In the region, fatality rates can range up to 8%, which is unacceptably high.

"Urgent action needs to be taken in critical areas to help stop the spread of this disease," said WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Luis Sambo. "Governments need to declare an emergency early so as to benefit from the necessary technical and other support of partners. Just as crucial are better surveillance and cross-border collaboration between health authorities."

Cholera is caused by a bacterium, vibrio cholera. It is transmitted by the fecal-oral route by eating or drinking food or liquids contaminated with fecal matter containing vibrio cholera. Transmission can be exacerbated by poor sanitation and poor hygiene practices. Poor health services mean that treatment may be late or inadequate. The disease is often associated with the poorest and most vulnerable as they are the least likely to have access to latrines or a supply of clean water. WHO teams in the affected countries are working with governments to ensure an effective response, and UNICEF is supplying equipment, chlorine and medicines.

"Public health measures must become much more of a priority for governments," said Manuel Fontaine, the Acting UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. "We are now seeing children and their families falling prey to a disease that is avoidable. WHO, governments and agencies such as ourselves are mounting an emergency response. But we need to see investment so that when a mother gives a child a drink she doesn't wonder if it will kill."

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