Doctors say religious pilgrims who flocked to the Senegalese town of Touba have helped spread a cholera epidemic through the Muslim holy city. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the outbreak could extend to other regions as people make their way back home.
A cholera outbreak was aggravated by hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims who made their way to Senegal's second city, Touba, last week. Although the Magal de Touba pilgrimage is over, more than 1500 new cases have been reported. The death toll has reached more than 15 people.
For many West African Muslims, the Magal de Touba is one of the most important spiritual journeys, commemorating the exile of religious and political leader Cheik Ahmadou Bamba. Although cholera was reported in the city before the pilgrimage started it, warnings did not deter people from going.
Senegalese Health Minister Issa Mbaye Samb says that stocks of cholera medicine in other regions of Senegal are being made available as pilgrims return home and fall ill.
Mr. Mbaye Samb says that health workers are continuing to warn returning pilgrims in different regions about the symptoms of cholera, because often people only go to the hospital when it is too late. Cholera causes acute diarrhea and vomiting and leads to rapid dehydration, which can be fatal unless treated rapidly.
Imam Omar Deme said that during the pilgrimage Muslim religious leaders did their best to warn people about the dangers of the water-borne disease.
Mr. Deme says it was impossible to prevent the disease from spreading, when people were praying five times a day in close proximity.
Although the government made available plastic tanks of disinfected water for people to wash with before eating, no special toilet facilities were provided. The cholera bacteria is spread through contact with feces and Touba's poor sanitation infrastructure has contributed to the problem.
Cholera outbreaks have occurred in central Nigeria with local reports of 13 dead and in a displaced persons camp in the northeastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Ituri, a epidemic was officially declared by the Congolese health authorities, and the aid group Doctors Without Borders opened a cholera center in three camps in the area. The United Nations has confirmed the death toll there has reached 20 people.