Cholera outbreak escalating

The number of people infected by a cholera outbreak in Guinea Bissau doubled in July to more than 600 and infections have spread to areas of the country previously considered low risk, health experts warn.

Of 611 people in Guinea Bissau who have contracted the disease this year, 344 of them were infected in July, according to the government’s statistics. So far 14 people have died. The outbreak has reached Gabu and Bafata, two areas normally immune from infection, and six other regions.

"We have seen a notable increase in cases in the last week, and it is now all over the country," said Silvia Luciani, UN children’s fund (UNICEF) representative.

The outbreak started in the Tomboli region in the south of the country and spread to the capital in early July. 

There is a greater risk of cholera breaking out in the rainy season, currently underway, as fecal matter overflows into the country’s reservoirs and wells. Most citizens cannot access running water and rely on well water for their daily needs.

The rehydration centre of the national hospital, Simão Mendes in the capital, Bissau, recorded 88 cholera cases of cholera in just three days, from 18 to 20 July.

The UN children’s fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and non-governmental organisations are helping the government try to contain the crisis.

An emergency response team led by the Ministry of Health is meeting three times a week to try to stop the disease from spreading. WHO is helping the government identify and treat cases. UNICEF, which traditionally builds latrines in health centres and schools, is spreading awareness to try to stem the spread and is developing a plan to disinfect the city's reservoirs.

But according to Luciano there is an urgent need for more chlorine to help people disinfect their wells. There is currently not enough chlorine in the country forcing the government to try to import it from Senegal.

Teams are going door-to-door across the capital to demonstrate safe hygiene practices to families. So far they have spread the word to over 22,000 households and hope to cover 70,000 by the end of the week.

Cholera is deemed endemic in Guinea Bissau by the World Health Organization. A major epidemic in 2005 infected 2,500 people and killed 400.

Guinea Bissau is emerging from many years of conflict and has weak state institutions with minimal capacity. Investment in water and sanitation infrastructure has not been prioritised, according to experts.

aj/nr