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WHO Launches Campaign to Contain Cholera in Guinea Bissau

The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund are launching an emergency appeal for $1.6 million to try to contain a cholera epidemic in Guinea-Bissau, which has affected more than 12,000 people and killed more than 200. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Guinea Bissau was hit by cholera in May. Six months later, the epidemic shows no signs of abating. And, UN aid agencies are worried. So far the disease has claimed at least 200 lives. But the World Health Organization says it expects the death toll to rise.

WHO Spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, tells VOA every day there are an average of 140 new cases of cholera. She says concerns are rising because the epidemic is far from being contained.

"The problem is we fear that if this cholera epidemic is not put under control, more people will be affected and we will see more deaths," said Chaib. "Usually cholera is not a deadly disease. We can really recover from it. So, it is unfortunate that people will die from it while we know how to prevent it and how to treat the cases."

West Africa is regularly affected by cholera outbreaks. Guinea Bissau's last major epidemic was in 2005. Judging from that experience, Chaib says the current epidemic might last for at least another three months with a peak by November.

She says cholera has spread to all of the country's 11 provinces, putting practically everyone at risk.

"It touches everybody because of the very weak water and sanitation infrastructure in the country," said Chaib. "For example, in the capital Bissau, only 25 percent of the population has access to take public water while the rest rely on heavily contaminated traditional wells and surface water. So, the infrastructure is bad and for the time being the outbreak is not controlled, despite efforts from the country and the UN agencies and the NGO's."

The joint WHO-UNICEF appeal will be used to support the national cholera response. Chaib says the agencies are planning to take appropriate public health actions to try and stop the epidemic, including intensive information and health education campaigns.

She says it is important that people understand that good hygiene is essential in preventing the spread of cholera. She says a simple action such as washing hands can save lives.