NEW YORK (July 10, 2012) — As the rainy season begins across the Sahel belt of West and Central Africa, recent cholera outbreaks that have killed more than 60 people and sickened about 2,800 this year are putting more and more people—especially malnourished children—at risk, UNICEF warned today.
Last week, an outbreak in northern Mali left two children dead and 34 other people sick, according to Mali’s Ministry of Health. So far this year, cholera has killed nearly 700 people in West and Central Africa, where more than 29,000 cases have been reported.
Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the highly infectious and deadly waterborne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger's regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients in the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.
In response to the threat posed by the spread of cholera in the Sahel, UNICEF and its partners are urgently ramping up their operations to prevent the emergence of new outbreaks across the region. Additional funding for the crisis in the Sahel is critical, especially for programs in water, sanitation, hygiene, and health. Three-quarters of the financial needs for these programs is still unmet. UNICEF urgently requires $146 million to address the humanitarian needs of children and women in the Sahel in 2012.
Cholera is putting an additional strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require lifesaving treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year, and an estimated 1.1 million children will face the life-threatening condition across the nine countries of the Sahel region in 2012. Since the beginning of the year, about 250,000 children under five have been treated for severe acute malnutrition in 5,200 health centers across the Sahel.
"Malnutrition, displacement, and now rains in some parts of the Sahel create the ideal breeding ground for cholera, which hits young children hardest," said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Acting Regional Director for West and Central Africa. "Unless we step up our efforts immediately, cholera will continue to claim the lives of the most vulnerable families in the Sahel and spread to other populated areas with a devastating impact."
Dr. Guido Borghese, UNICEF Principal Advisor Child Survival and Development for West and Central Africa, added: "Cholera shows us how closely linked malnutrition is to unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene. A child below the age of five who has recovered from severe and acute malnutrition will be back for treatment in a matter of days or weeks if he or she is drinking contaminated water."
Before, during and after cholera breaks out, UNICEF works with governments, agencies and local partners across the region to expand access to improved water and sanitation, educate families on how to prevent the spread of the disease and equip health facilities with supplies, skills and expertise.
"If we wait until the number of cholera cases explodes before taking action, it will be too late to keep the outbreak under control," said Borghese. "Hand washing campaigns, treatment of drinking water and awareness-raising radio programming must be carried out throughout the year. These simple measures are proven to be effective ways of preventing and containing the spread of this infectious deadly disease."
Since the beginning of the year, more than 94,000 people in nine countries in the Sahel have received supplies to treat household water and been trained on how to use them at home to keep children healthy. In Chad, for instance, the number of cholera cases has dramatically fallen from more than 5,000 to zero in a year’s time—illustrating how joint efforts can help to successfully combat cholera outbreaks.
"You can't treat malnutrition and ignore cholera," said Fontaine. "But without more funding soon, we risk undoing a lot of work already done to treat and prevent malnutrition in children."
Cholera is a recurring threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, more than 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries of Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria, with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2%.
This year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where their impact is exacerbated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.
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