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Cholera Epidemic Spreads Through Guinea-Bissau

A cholera epidemic is spreading in Guinea-Bissau. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar that health workers say the epidemic has resisted their efforts to contain it, and is likely to worsen.

Guinea Bissau's cholera epidemic has spread through the entire country, with cases reported in every region. Health workers now say they fear it will become worse.

The first cases were reported in May in the southern region of Tombali. Last month, a number of cases were diagnosed in the capital, Bissau, and hundreds were treated at the central hospital there.

Deputy Country Representative for UNICEF, Sylvana Nzirorera, says the epidemic has been difficult to contain.

"The cases keep increasing," Nzirorera said. "The last figures I have from July 30, is 960 cases with 25 deaths. A subject of concern is that it is progressing, despite the efforts we are putting in."

Nzirorera says cases have now been reported in all of Guinea-Bissau's regions. She says the majority of the most serious cases have been in the capital.

Health services and NGOs are working to contain the epidemic to avoid a situation similar to that of 2005, when cholera infected 25,000 and killed 400. Nzirorera said it is worrisome that the disease has spread so broadly.

Reporter Lassana Cassama says the toll is very high this early in the year.

In addition, Cassama says, medical experts say this year's cholera strain has developed some resistance to traditional disinfectants. For cleaning and water purification, UNICEF scientists and health officials are recommending a stronger concentration of bleach, typically used for such purposes in Guinea-Bissau.

Cholera is an infectious bacterial disease contracted by ingesting contaminated food or water. If untreated, a healthy person can die within a few hours of exposure, making cholera one of the most rapidly fatal diseases known.

Cholera is endemic to Guinea-Bissau. Health experts say each year cases are reported at the beginning of the rainy season in May. Health officials focus on containing the spread of the early cases to avoid large scale epidemics like the one in 2005.