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WHO Warns Liberian Health Situation Quickly Deteriorating - 2003-09-04

West African peacekeepers are heading north of Liberia's capital to investigate reports of fighting that is driving thousands of civilians from their homes. In the meantime, World Health Organization delegates in Monrovia are warning of a major health crisis there, including an outbreak of cholera.

Hundreds of thousands of Liberians fled last month's fighting and flooded the capital, Monrovia. Few have left.

WHO spokeswoman Melanie Zipperer says more than 25,000 displaced persons have been squeezed into 90 camps in and around the capital. More than 45,000 are crowded into the city's football stadium.

Ms. Zipperer says the health situation is deteriorating rapidly. In a phone interview from Monrovia, she reports the spread of cholera, dysentery and skin infections from the crowded conditions and inadequate sanitary and health facilities.

"We have in Monrovia the cholera outbreak," she said. "During the week August 25 to August 31, 2035 new cases have been reported, of which 213 suffer from severe diarrhea. And four people have been reported to have died from Cholera last week."

Ms. Zipperer says a health clinic near the capital's football stadium, staffed with only six nurses, has been overwhelmed.

"Up to 400 patients come there every day to see the six nurses," said Ms. Zipprer. "The most common health problems include malaria, diarrhea, skin infections because of poor hygiene and also respiratory infections and cholera."

The WHO representative says health conditions are not much better outside the capital. But getting help to those in need, she says, is complicated by continued fighting.

"Most cities have been looted," she explained. "The hospitals have been vandalized. There is a severe shortage of medication of pharmaceuticals. Children are malnourished."

Ms. Zipperer says international relief teams like Doctors Without Borders are helping WHO chlorinate water supplies to provide clean drinking water. The World Health Organization has also implemented an emergency vaccination program for measles.

The WHO spokeswoman says there are longer-term plans to rebuild at least six of Liberia's largest hospitals and medical clinics that were looted or destroyed during the fighting that has engulfed the West African nation.