Print options

September 20, 2012

Sierra Leone's Cholera Epidemic Easing But Not Over

by Lisa Schlein

International aid agencies report a downward trend in the number of cholera cases in Sierra Leone.  But, they warn against complacency and urge continued vigilance.   The World Health Organization, WHO reports 18,919 cases of cholera, including 273 deaths have been confirmed.  

This is the largest cholera outbreak seen in Sierra Leone since the pandemic hit the country in 1970 and 1971.   And, it constitutes the largest epidemic of cholera in Africa this year.  The epidemic is still raging, but slowing down.  Cholera reached its peak of 2,100 cases a week in August.   Since then, the number of reported cases has fallen dramatically to about 100 a week.

WHO says 12 of 13 districts in Sierra Leone are now affected.  About 60 percent of all cases are in the capital, Freetown.  It notes the case fatality ratios have significantly decreased to less than one percent.

WHO Coordinator of Control of Epidemic Diseases William Perea says these good results show that the case management and surveillance systems are working well.   But, he tells VOA it is still too early to scale back the response.

"Surveillance again is the key," he said. "But, what is going to happen now is we are training lab technicians across the country and distributing material to make sure that specimens are collected at the most peripheral areas and that those samples are collected and analyzed as quickly as possible to give us a better picture of what is going on.   We still have cases here and there, but we expect that within the next two months the number of cases will finally recede."

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is launching an emergency appeal for more than $2,600,000 to help contain the spread of cholera within Sierra Leone and across the West Africa region.

The money will assist more than 3.5 million indirect and direct beneficiaries for the next six months.  It will help support the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, which has more than 700 volunteers working with communities at risk.

Red Cross Emergency Health Officer Amanda McClelland has been working with the Sierra Leone Red Cross for the past two months.  Although the cholera numbers may be stabilizing in Sierra Leone, she says it is important to continue efforts to respond at the district and village levels.

"We would agree that the surveillance has definitely improved.  But, we are seeing a number of mild cases treated by the volunteers at the community level and we continue to see that spread slowly but surely towards the south and southwest down towards the Liberian border," she said. "So, this is not the time to pull back even though the numbers are coming down.  We need to continue our efforts.  We need to continue supporting the Ministry of Health with case management and effective control."

McClelland says a lot of the rural hospitals are in need of basic infrastructure support.   So, she says the Red Cross has been providing water systems and basic latrines as well as infectious disease and waste management systems.  

The outbreak and spread of cholera in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in West Africa is connected to poor sanitation and a lack of access to fresh water.  

Health agencies say people should not be dying of cholera.  It is a preventable and easily treatable disease.  They say providing people with water, sanitation, access to basic health and health promotion can save their lives.