Cholera outbreaks across West Africa: MSF sends more staff and supplies

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Brussels - West African countries, including Liberia, Guinea, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso are facing a particularly bad cholera outbreak this year. In most countries a large number of patients come from the capital cities.

MSF, already active in fighting cholera across the region, has sent in more staff and supplies in response to the outbreak.

After an initial assessment in Guinea Bissau, where the epidemic is quickly spreading, MSF sent a charter plane with more than 70 tons of medical and logistical supplies. An Antonov 124 left last Saturday night from Ostende airport in Belgium. The freight contains cholera kits to treat 3,000 people, first aid kits, 2,400 meters of plastic sheeting, 12 dispensary tents to set up cholera treatment centres, water tanks as well as 1,200 jerry cans and spraying equipments.

MSF expects to open its first cholera treatment centre in Guinea Bissau within days.

"MSF is increasing its response capacity to face the cholera outbreak all over West Africa," said Stephan Goetghebuer, Operational Coordinator for this region, based in Brussels. "In Burkina Faso, we have treated 282 patients, in Liberia's capital Monrovia we have treated 2,337 severe cases plus 7,291 suspected infections.

"In Guinea Conakry we have set up three treatment centres and give support to another two. In Mauritania we have treated well over 1,000 people so far. Now we will also open cholera centres in Guinea Bissau.

"In the (coming days) we hope to reach Kachek island in Guinea Conakry, from where it is very hard to get information because radio contacts are unreliable. Overall, our figures show that the number of cases continues to increase across many countries in West Africa."

Cholera is a communicable disease that is transmitted through contaminated water and food. If not treated, the mortality rate is between 25% and 50%. The disease is endemic in this region. But a number of factors conspire to make the outbreak during this year's rainy season much worse than in most years, including bad conditions of hygiene, overcrowding in certain areas, and a lack of safe drinking water.

A lot of outbreaks are in capital cities like Monrovia, Conakry, Ouagadougou and Nouakchott.

"In Guinea 1,779 cases have been reported of which more than 1,000 in the capital's Donka Hospital," explained Charlotte Bohot, Head of Mission for MSF in Guinea. "Many people arrive at the hospital from the poor and marginalized areas of Ratoma and Matoto. That is why we decided to open two more cholera centres there and start a public awareness campaign."

Her colleague in Liberia, Head of Mission Miles Kemplay, sees a similar pattern. "In Monrovia, living conditions are incredibly poor; all over the city people are vulnerable to communicable disease. Last week was the worst this year with 153 severe cases and 306 suspected infections. Due to the heavy rains and terrible sanitation we are seeing an increasing number of patients," he says.

Public awareness activities are an important element in the attempts of MSF and other organisations to control the outbreak. They aim at explaining to the population how they can protect themselves from getting infected and where to go to receive medical assistance.

"In Liberia we have commissioned a 'cholera song' in collaboration with the Ministry of Health," Kemplay explained. "During all of August, the song was played on ELBC Radio and Radio Veritas, two of the most popular stations in Liberia."