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UNICEF warns of growing risk of cholera upsurge in Africa’s Sahel region

Cholera patients learn about sanitation from health workers.
IRIN/Nancy Palus
Cholera patients learn about sanitation from health workers.

UNICEF warns of growing risk of cholera upsurge in Africa’s Sahel region

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today warned that a recent upsurge in the Sahel of cholera – which has already killed more than 60 people and sickened about 2,800 there this year – is putting more and more people, especially malnourished children, at risk.

“Malnutrition, displacement, and now rains in some parts of the Sahel create the ideal breeding ground for cholera, which hits young children hardest,” UNICEF’s Acting Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Manuel Fontaine, said in a news release.

“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,” he added.

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in Africa’s Sahel region, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and includes Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and the northern regions of Cameroon and Nigeria. In addition, humanitarian organizations estimate that there are currently some 18 million people facing food insecurity in the region.

Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River have particularly experienced an increase in the disease, with the country’s Ministry of Health reporting nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year, UNICEF said. Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year.

Last week, an outbreak in northern Mali left two children dead and 34 other people sick, including a growing number of children, according to Mali’s Ministry of Health.

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. In 2011, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries – Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria – with 2,153 deaths, and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, UNICEF noted, the epidemic appears to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali, putting more strain on children already affected by the region’s acute nutrition crisis.

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.

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.

So far this year, 29,000 cases of cholera have been reported in the broader West and Central Africa area, killing nearly 700 people, according to UNICEF.