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Red Cross Reports Increase in Diarrheal Diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns diarrheal diseases, such as cholera, are on the rise and increasingly becoming a major cause of death throughout the world - especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The Red Cross says it is working closely with governments to step up an effective response to this emergency.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says nearly one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Most of these people are in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a consequence, the Swiss humanitarian organization says diseases, which are preventable keep coming back and that many people are dying or becoming ill.

Red Cross statistics show that in 2007 and 2008, around 60 percent of all requests for assistance from its emergency fund were directly or indirectly related to outbreaks of acute diarrheal diseases. It notes that this is about 35 percent more compared to similar statistics in 2006.

Red Cross Senior Water and Sanitation Officer Robert Fraser cites several key reasons for the rise in waterborne diseases.

"One is definitely the increasing and rapid urbanization and particularly in countries where the services - water and sanitation and hygiene promotion are poor, combined with the fact that we see erosion of health and care, support services from government and added to the increasing impact of climate change, particularly increasing severity of floods, food security issues and droughts," he said.

Fraser says these problems are exacerbated in countries that have political instability and conflict. He says acute problems of diarrhea and cholera increasingly are popping up in areas and countries, which previously were able to control them. A case in point, he notes, is Zimbabwe, where thousands of people have died from a cholera epidemic.

"We have to be better prepared to deal with the acute problems, such as the outbreak in Zimbabwe just now," Fraser said. "We have seven emergency teams, over 50 international staff and we have mobilized over one thousand local volunteers. So we are very much involved in the Zimbabwe response. The real answer to diarrheal disease is the medium to long-term and that is really the U.N. Millennium Development Goals in reducing by half at least the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation linked to low-cost and simple methodologies for hygiene promotion."

The Red Cross says it is working closely with governments and humanitarian partners to step up an effective response and to increase the training of Red Cross volunteers worldwide.

It says a principle aim of this program is to raise public awareness about what needs to be done to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases and, failing that, to effectively respond to outbreaks of disease.