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UN Tries to Halt Spread of Cholera in Congo

U.N. aid agencies are stepping up operations to try to head-off a cholera outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu Province, where recent clashes between the government and rebels have forced thousands of people from their homes. The agencies warn the disease could spread rapidly among the large displaced population if efforts to contain it are not taken. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

About one-quarter of one million people have fled the spiraling conflict in North Kivu since August. They are living in abysmal, overcrowded conditions in camps and makeshift shelters.

The World Health Organization reports the escalation of fighting between Congolese government forces and rebels loyal to renegade commander, Laurent Nkundu, has left more than one million people without clean water, food and access to health care.

WHO spokesman Paul Garwood says at least 1,000 cases of cholera have been reported since October. He says the World Health Organization is extremely concerned by an increasing threat that the potentially deadly disease could spread in eastern DRC.

"As yet, we have seen no explosion in cholera cases. But the risks are very high, particularly because there are inaccessible areas where we fear that services are needed and there are people who cannot be reached as yet. We need to make sure that people are making their own water safe," he said. "Water needs to be chlorinated. It needs to be boiled. We advocate the need for good personal hygiene, people cooking their food well."

Garwood says the World Health Organization is seeking $2.6 million for the next three months to meet disease control needs. This, he says, includes the need to improve assessments and surveillance of various health conditions.

He says the World Health Organization is buying medicine to combat cholera and diarrheal diseases in the region.

He says 60 tons of supplies, which are in Entebbe, Uganda, will be transported by road to North Kivu's provincial capital, Goma and the surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Children's Fund reports three planeloads of medicine to curb cholera and respiratory infections have been sent to Goma. It says several planeloads already have arrived in the city and more flights will take off in the coming days.

UNICEF spokeswoman Miranda Eeles says malaria and respiratory infections are the two biggest killers of children in the DRC. She says measles also poses huge risks and vaccination campaigns against this disease are going on wherever possible.

"Malnutrition is also sure to rise in the conflict affected and displacement areas. So, a nutritional screening has been completed Kibati. We are still waiting results on that. But, we are preparing to reinforce feeding centers in high-risk areas," said Eeles. "And, we have dozens of feeding centers already treating hundreds of malnourished children."

Besides medical supplies, Eeles says UNICEF plans to distribute plastic sheets to displaced families to provide them with emergency shelter. She says thousands of children have been sleeping out in the open in wet, cold conditions and are at high risk of falling ill.

She says thousands of blankets and cooking sets also are being sent. She notes the blankets will help keep children stay warm at night and cooking sets will enable food to be cooked and eaten with sanitary utensils.