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Cholera, Chikungunya Outbreaks Strain Kenya's Medical Services

Mandera, Kenya

In what Doctors Without Borders is calling a first, simultaneous outbreaks of cholera and chikungunya are straining local health services in northeastern Kenya.

In Kenya’s Mandera County, 12 deaths from cholera have been reported since April, in an outbreak that has been ongoing for about 17 months, according to Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym, MSF. Almost 800 cases have been reported during this period, concentrated in Mandera township.

“It is rather devastating in the sense also that, you know, it coincides with a parallel chikungunya outbreak,” said Liesbeth Aelbrecht, MSF’s Kenya country director. “For us as an organization, it’s a first, at least to see two large outbreaks coinciding.”

MSF said this is the sixth time in six months that it has deployed teams to assist with the cholera outbreak in the northeastern region. MSF said the Mandera Referral Hospital has been "overwhelmed" by cholera patients and expressed concern that health facilities will continue to struggle as chikungunya patients also seek treatment.

Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness causing high fever, joint pain and headache, is affecting even medical personnel. MSF suspects about 80 percent of hospital staff are infected. Although mortality rates are usually low, it can take patients about a week to recover.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health reports 260 suspected cases of chikungunya in the northeast, with seven confirmed by laboratory tests.

Aelbrecht urged a better government response at the local and national levels, saying greater investment in proper water and sanitation for the population is needed.

Mandera county's minister of health, Ahmed Mohamed, said the government is doing the best it can, especially given Mandera’s proximity to both Ethiopia and Somalia. He said people traveling across the borders can carry diseases with them.

“So, we’ve done quite a lot on our part,” said Mohamed, “but unfortunately, especially on the Somali side, there isn’t a strong health system that can be able to handle this kind of infection. So it is like we are fighting a battle where we don’t know where the head is.”

The Kenyan Ministry of Health has reported more than 15,000 cholera cases nationwide since the outbreak began in late 2014.