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WHO Warns of Epidemics in Niger

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns the food crisis affecting Niger is putting people at greater risk of epidemics. The health agency has sent medical experts to the country to help head-off deadly outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The World Health Organization says Niger's food shortages have weakened peoples' resistance to disease. As a consequence, it says it expects an increase in the number of communicable diseases and deaths.

WHO Emergency Medical Expert, Pinot Annunziata, says many of these diseases will result from poor water and sanitation. He says people will die from diarrhea, malaria or measles. He says some parts of Niger already are gripped by cholera, and 49 people have been reported sick.

"And, we have already five deaths which means, in our language, a case fatality rate that is particularly high, which is more than 10 percent," he said. "You are expecting one, two percent of number of deaths versus the number of cases. In this case, it is already 10 and this is already an indicator that those diseases are affecting very weak human bodies, basically."

Dr. Annunziata says women, children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Another concern, he says, is that bad water and sanitation is spreading hepatitis E, a big killer of pregnant women.

He says World Health Organization experts are conducting a mission in Niger to assess the health needs. He says a number of private aid agencies are involved in providing medical care and WHO will help Niger's Ministry of Health coordinate these activities. He says WHO also will work to set up a strong surveillance system for communicable diseases.

"A surveillance system is a system to allow early detection of communicable diseases that are a big threat in terms of public health, in terms of epidemics," he added. "It is crucial to have an early detection of cases of cholera for a proper response. And, we will provide also support in terms of training for management of severe malnutrition."

Dr. Annunziata says another big problem facing people in Niger is that they have to pay to receive basic health care. He says most people are too poor to pay this user fee and that discourages them from seeking treatment. He says the Ministry of Health is conscious of this problem, but does not know how to handle it.

He says WHO is working with the Ministry to try to waive this user fee.