18 December 2012

Africa: New Cholera Strain Poses Prevention Challenges

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
A mother washes her child in Kroo Bay slum in Freetown, where access to basic sanitation is severely limited and cholera outbreaks are regular occurrences.

Dakar — The cholera that struck more than 7,000 people in Guinea this year was caused by a new generation of cholera strains - atypical variants of vibrio cholerae O1 El Tor, epidemiologists have confirmed.

The new strains secrete a toxin severer than usual strains, creating a more virulent illness - with harsher symptoms and a higher infection rate, according to cholera experts in the region.

The same types of strain are believed to be in Sierra Leone, where cholera affected 22,345 people this year: the bacteria are thought to have come to Guinea from Sierra Leone. For now, genetic sequencing has been done only on samples from Guinea; analysis of Sierra Leone samples is under way.

"This discovery of a cholera strain atypical El Tor is worrying, as it confirms the advance of strains that are more severe and more contagious," said Stanislas Rebaudet, an epidemiologist at the university hospital of Marseilles, France, where the vibrio cholerae strain found in Guinea has been analysed with the support of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "This demands stronger prevention and response efforts."

Africa - West Africa in particular - is the only region of the world where cholera cases are steadily increasing.

Cholera experts say the strain isolated in Guinea was most likely recently imported, and not lying dormant in the environment. "This tells us then that cholera is not an inevitability in this region," he told IRIN. He noted that this year's situation in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Guinea demonstrates the importance of cross-border collaboration.

Scientists are continuing their analyses in a bid to identify the source of the strain, epidemiologist Rebaudet says.

This type of strain was present in Zimbabwe in 2009, in the Lake Chad Basin in 2009, and is found in Haiti currently.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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