Health officials say that a cholera epidemic, one of the worst in years, is sweeping through the coastal slums of West Africa. The disease is spreading through Freetown and Conakry, capital cities of Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Doctors Without Borders say there have been nearly twice as many cases of cholera this year in Sierra Leone and Guinea as there were during the same period in 2007.
Cholera is a disease transmitted through contact with contaminated water, food and human waste. The disease in endemic in West Africa and regular sporadic outbreaks occur in slum areas in the region, especially during the rainy season floods when water sources are at greater risk of contamination.
Slum areas in major West African cities lack pipe borne water supply, toilet and proper sewage facilities. Most people defecate in open drains, streams and waterways. Years of civil war in Sierra Leone and political instability in Guinea that characterises much of the region has contributed to collapse of public utilities.
The New York Times reports that Jane Bevan, a regional sanitation specialist for UNICEF, commenting on the poor public utilities system in the region, said: "If your area is flooded with rainwater, and if people are defecating in the open, it will get into the water supply. We know governments have the money for other things. I’m afraid sanitation is never given the priority it deserves.”
According to The New York Times, Dr. Sakoba Keita, a government health official in Conakry, commented on sanitary conditions in the city: “Garbage collection is highly irregular. There are piles of garbage everywhere,”
In many coastal cities of West Africa, up to two-thirds of the population live in slums.
The Associated Press reports that about 13,000 people suffering symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and severe dehydration associated with cholera have been treated in Sierra Leone and Guinea and, according to Doctors Without Borders, about 250 to 300 people have died. Outbreaks have been reported in landlocked Mali and Niger also.
According to Zainab Bangura, Sierra Leone's health minister, more than 11,600 cholera cases have been reported in the country since January with 216 fatal cases. In Guinea, 80 deaths out of 2,700 cases have been reported and 1,000 new cases are reported every week in Freetown, health officials say.
Accordng to The Associated Press, last week, government declared a cholera outbreak national emergency. Aid and health workers in Guinea say the outbreak was not likely to have reached its peak. Natasha Reyes Ticzon, a field coordinator with Doctors Without Borders in Freetown, said most patients report at health centers in very poor condition, "They come barely conscious because they are severely dehydrated."
More than 40,000 cases of cholera have been reported in 14 countries of West and Central Africa this year, with 846 deaths. More than half of the cases come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF reports. In 2011, more than 105,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths were reported in an epidemic centered around the inland Lake Chad region of Nigeria, Chad and Niger.