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WHO Warns of Cholera Outbreak in Darfur - 2004-07-18

The World Health Organization says it is planning to start a cholera immunization campaign early this week in Sudan's western Darfur province to prevent an outbreak of the potentially fatal disease.

The Head of WHO's Health Crises Operations, David Nabarro, says aid agencies hope to vaccinate about one-half-million internally displaced people in 40 of the biggest camps during the next two months.

"We are sufficiently worried about the conditions in some of the camps, and the possibility that cholera might arise with the terrible death rates of the kind that we saw in Goma about 10 years ago, that we need to get this going," he said. "And, our rationale is that the situation is sufficiently ripe for a cholera epidemic that it would be wrong of us not to take this action."

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide 10 years ago, hundreds-of-thousands of people fled to Goma in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time, an outbreak of cholera killed about 1,000 people a week.

Dr. Nabarro says similar conditions of heat, rain, contaminated water and overcrowded camps make Darfur ripe for a devastating epidemic.

He says aid workers will use an oral cholera vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of 90 percent. He says, if WHO receives enough doses, each person will receive two doses of the vaccine during a 10-day period.

Meanwhile, peace talks in Addis Ababa between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels to end fighting in the region collapsed when the rebels withdrew. The fighting in Darfur has created what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Dr. Nabarro says WHO did not think the situation in Darfur would become as desperate as it is. He says the agency underestimated the difficulty of getting enough water supplies and of improving sanitation facilities in the camps. As a result, he says, the amount of available cholera vaccine is not enough to meet the needs. He says the WHO is working with the pharmaceutical companies to get more vaccine produced as quickly as possible.