The cholera alert was raised by the Ministry of Health on Monday January 17, with 66 cases of cholera having been identified in recent days in the city's two main hospitals. While the source has not yet been identified, the cases mainly come from Kamenge - one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Bujumbura - and also the site of the MSF centre.
"The number of victims is continuing to rise," explained MSF Head of Mission, Fabio Pompetti. "Since Monday, when the alarm was raised, another 42 cases have been detected. We have reopened our centre with 12 new nurses and have made 80 beds available, so the immediate needs should be covered."
At the same time, the local authorities are conducting a public awareness campaign and are using a chlorinated solution to spray the area in order to wipe out the bacteria. Meanwhile, patients should now be transferred from the hospitals into the MSF centre to avoid further contamination.
"In the first days three people died at home because their families couldn't afford the hospital entrance fee (3.5 euro)," added Fabio Pompetti. "Then the epidemic was declared and health care provided for free. Unfortunately for these poor families it was too late. This is yet another demonstration that lack of access to health care is a worrying issue in this country."
The MSF centre has existed since 1995 when it was first set up to treat people displaced following the razing of Kamenge during the civil war. Since this time it has served as a supplementary feeding centre for malnourished children, a cholera clinic and an extension to the neighbouring MSF centre for war-wounded.
With relative peace returning to Burundi with the signing of power-sharing accords in 2003 and 2004, the centre for cholera was closed but kept on stand-by as very poor hygienic conditions and lack of clean water in the suburbs can lead to cholera outbreak at any time.
Cholera is a potentially fatal and outbreaks of the disease occur quite regularly countrywide in Burundi. In June 2004, MSF responded to an outbreak in Cibitoke province treating 200 patients. Cholera thrives in environments with poor hygiene and sanitation, but is not fatal if caught early enough.
The rapid de-hydration caused by the disease can be treated by the patient intravenously receiving an average of 8-10 litres of water per day. Complete recovery usually comes within 48 hours. Despite this, in many areas of the Great Lakes, cholera is still a significant killer.