Cholera outbreaks have affected thousands of people in both the eastern DRC and Zimbabwe. The World Health Organization is rushing treatment to areas of the DRC where recent fighting has displaced many thousands of people. The WHO is also trying to help Zimbabweans, whose collapsed health care system is said to be contributing to the problem.
Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat is in charge of the World Health Organization's Global Taskforce on Cholera Control. From Geneva, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the cholera outbreak in conflict-ridden eastern DRC.
"We know that cholera is endemic in the area. That means they have regular occurrence of cholera cases in North and South Kivu (Provinces). But…with the start of the intensified fighting we have seen a clear jump of the cholera cases…. And this started early October. After early November, we have seen that there's a threefold increase in northern Kivu of cases," she says.
WHO estimates there have been about one thousand cases of cholera so far in North Kivu and another 850 in South Kivu. However, those are rough estimates because of the lack of access to many areas. The WHO, at this time, has no information on fatalities.
Asked how to contain the outbreak, Dr. Chaignat says, "It's really running after the target somehow. But what we try is to be quicker than the cholera…. We have intensified our preparedness activities. That means we have shipped 60 tons of supplies to Entebbe in Uganda…that can be shipped immediately to the hotspots in DRC as soon as we know where the hotspots are."
She says there are a number of NGOs in the area very experienced in the treatment of cholera, such as Doctors Without Borders, Merlin and CARE. She says another problem is ensuring there is enough clean drinking water in a region where it is normally scarce.
As for Zimbabwe, where a political crisis has contributed to a humanitarian crisis, cholera is reported spreading quickly. Dr. Chaignat says, "We see that recently we have had an increase in the number of cases. And in fact since August, we have now more than 2,800 cases that have been reported and 115 deaths. This high case fatality rate shows that in fact the patients don't have access easily to proper healthcare services. And that is thought is very worrisome because we know the high standards that Zimbabwe had in previous years in regards to healthcare assistance…. And they also have a big problem with safe water provision."
She says that to contain the spread of the disease in Zimbabwe, surveillance must be improved to pinpoint the hotspots and get treatment shipped to those areas quickly. She also says that education about the disease needs to be increased among Zimbabweans.The WHO official says treatment of cholera is relatively simple, using oral re-hydration containing sugar and salts in most cases and intravenous hydration in more severe cases.