Tillabéri, Niger (August 8, 2012) — Djamilatu, a 3-year-old girl, was rushed to a nearby health center after suffering from diarrhea and abdominal pain, common symptoms of cholera. “She was in a bad state,” recounts her mother Aichatou Abdou. “She thought she would die. She is still scared.”
As the rainy season unfolds, more than 3,000 cholera cases and 68 deaths from the highly contagious disease were reported along the Niger River. Children living on the many islands in the river are amongst the most vulnerable, because of inaccessibility to health care.
Thanks to UNICEF’s support, the Government of Niger is on the frontline of the epidemic, providing treatment and distributing medical supplies and hygiene kits to health centers. Trained social workers are mobilized to sensitise communities and refugees on cholera prevention.
Djamilatou recovered after receiving treatment for five days in the health center on Kandadji Island. “She feels much better now,” says her mother.
Cholera outbreak is recurrent in the Sahel region. This year, however, its impact has worsened due to the enormous displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali. So far over 52,000 refugees have arrived in Niger. They have poor access to social services and live in regions hardest hit by the current food and nutrition crisis.
UNICEF and partners estimate that nearly 394,000 children under five will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year. Children who are already weakened due to malnutrition are at severe risk for the deadly cholera disease. Once treated for malnutrition they can easily fall sick again from contaminated water.
The most cholera-affected areas are villages and refugee camps bordering the Niger river and communities living on the islands where access is possible only by boats.
“It’s particularly dangerous during the rainy season. Our only boat is broken and we have the problem of hippopotamus. There are many of them in the area and they make our travels very risky,” says Hamidou Abdoulaye. He is the only nurse providing care for more than 10,000 people in his area in the islands, including severely malnourished children.
The geographical setting and isolation of the islands not only prevents the islanders from seeking treatment services but also restricts frontline health workers like Abdoulaye from bringing services and medical supplies to communities.
Treating those infected with cholera is crucial, but even more impactful is educating communities about cholera prevention. UNICEF is working with partners in the affected and high-risk areas, including in refugee camps, to disseminate cholera prevention messages through door-to-door interventions.
Teaching households on good hygiene practices such as washing hands with soap are very effective methods in containing the spread of the disease. UNICEF also distributes water purification supplies to ensure access to safe drinking water.
“At the health center [Djamilatou] was given only clean drinking water,” recalls her mother Aichatou. “After she returned home, she refused to drink water from the river. Now we drink water from the well in the next village, or we treat the river water before drinking it.”
Thanks to the sensitization sessions, women and mothers are doing their best in putting the lessons in to practice. Habibatou Djibou, a mother who recently recovered from cholera, explains how committed she is to following the newly-taught hygiene. “We are poor but we do our best to take care of our health," says Habibatou.
“It is difficult to consider the river as an enemy,” says Moussa Kassoum representing the chief of the Goungou Korey, a village in the islands with no access to potable water.
“All our livelihoods depend on the river. This is where we get our drinking water from. Help us to build some water wells so that we can drink clean water and become healthier.”
More resources are required to expand access to improved water and sanitation, inform families and communities on how to prevent the spread of the disease, and equip health facilities with the supplies and human resources they need to treat cholera.
UNICEF is calling on the international community to join efforts to stop the seasonal and recurrent cholera outbreak and provide vulnerable communities with sustainable access to safe water.