The World Health Organization reports the worst cholera epidemic in years is sweeping across West Africa. At least eight countries are affected. The health agency says it fears cholera will spread to other parts of Africa.

The World Health Organization says the cholera epidemic is particularly severe in Senegal with more than 24,000 reported cases and Guinea Bissau with nearly 16,500 cases.

WHO says the epidemic in Senegal began in January and peaked in March when many pilgrims came to the city of Touba. It says the disease spread quickly to other parts of the country.

WHO Global Cholera Coordinator, Claire-Lise Chaignat, says cholera declined in the summer, but resurfaced in the capital, Dakar, four weeks ago.

"We are facing a huge cholera outbreak in Dakar and this is mainly linked to the heavy rainy season that we have this year and the floods. So, we have over the last week for Senegal, we have 1,212 new cases occurring which is much more than if we see the last week and the first week of September, we had 709 cases," said Dr. Chaignat. "So, we see there is a clear trend of increasing of cholera cases occurring in Senegal now again."

Dr. Chaignat says she is afraid cholera will continue to increase in Senegal in the coming weeks because many pilgrims are likely to come to the country during Ramadan which begins in early October.

Cholera is spread through contaminated water and food. It thrives in poor communities with unsanitary conditions. Most cases of diarrhea caused by the disease can be adequately treated by giving a solution of oral rehydration salts. Antibiotics are given in the most severe cases. When treated quickly, WHO says the case-fatality rate can be kept to less than one percent.

Dr. Chaignat says Senegal, which has fairly good control programs in place, has a case fatality rate of just over one percent. In contrast, she says drought and locust-stricken Niger has just 431 cases of cholera, but a high death rate of 10 percent.

"Niger? They had in fact a bigger outbreak last year than this year," she said. "This year they do not have much cases compared to last year, but we are much concerned because of the humanitarian situation.

"That is why we are tracing it very closely to see that we can stop it," continued Dr. Chaignat. "And, that is why we have really tried, made a big effort to send enough cholera kits, to have enough supplies, to make a proper case management and to provide good information to the population and also to the health care staff."

Dr. Chaignat notes people who suffer from chronic food shortages, as they do in Niger, are more vulnerable to falling sick from diseases such as cholera.

While the cholera season is not yet over for West Africa, she says WHO is concerned that cholera soon will spread to the Horn of Africa and countries in southern Africa.