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Cholera upsurge kills more children in the Sahel

2012-07-10


TORONTO, 10 July 2012 - As the rainy season unfolds across the Sahel, a recent upsurge of cholera that has killed over 60 people and sickened about 2,800 this year is putting more and more people – especially malnourished children – at risk, UNICEF warned today.

“UNICEF is urgently increasing its efforts to prevent a wide-scale cholera outbreak in the Sahel, a region that is already facing a nutrition crisis,” says UNICEF Canada’s President and CEO David Morley. “With only one quarter of our financial needs met we are calling on Canadians to once again show their generosity by supporting our efforts. Reaching vulnerable children and their families with water, sanitation, hygiene and health programs is critical right now.”

Last week, an outbreak in Northern Mali left two children dead and 34 other people sick, including a growing number of children, according to Mali’s Ministry of Health. So far in 2012, cholera has killed nearly 700 people in West and Central Africa and more than 29,000 cases were reported.

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the deadly highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.

Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year. 

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria), with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali and puts more strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.

“Malnutrition, displacement, and now rains in some parts of the Sahel create the ideal breeding ground for cholera, which hits young children hardest,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Acting Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “Unless we step up our efforts immediately, cholera will continue to claim the lives of the most vulnerable families in the Sahel and spread to other populated areas with a devastating impact.”

Dr. Guido Borghese, UNICEF Principal Advisor Child Survival and Development for West and Central Africa, added: “Cholera shows us how closely linked malnutrition is to unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene. A child below the age of five who has recovered from severe and acute malnutrition will be back for treatment in a matter of days or weeks if he or she is drinking contaminated water.”

Before, during and after cholera breaks out, UNICEF works with governments, sister agencies and local partners across the region to expand access to improved water and sanitation, educate families on how to prevent the spread of the disease and equip health facilities with supplies, skills and expertise.

“If we wait until the number of cholera cases explodes before taking action, it will be too late to keep the outbreak under control,” said Dr. Borghese. “Hand washing campaigns, treatment of drinking water and awareness-raising radio programming must be carried out throughout the year. These simple measures are proven to be effective ways of preventing and containing the spread of this infectious deadly disease.”

Since the beginning of the year, over 94,000 people in nine countries in the Sahel have received supplies to treat household water and been trained on how to use them at home to keep children healthy. In Chad, for instance, the number of cholera cases has dramatically fallen from more than 5,000 to zero in a year’s time – illustrating how joint efforts can help to successfully combat cholera outbreaks.

“You can’t treat malnutrition and ignore cholera,’’ said Mr. Fontaine. “But without more funding soon, we risk undoing a lot of work already done to treat and prevent malnutrition in children.’’

Canadians can support emergency relief efforts by making a donation at unicef.ca/sahelnow.

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Note to the editors:

Over 4 million children are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year across the nine countries of the Sahel, including nearly 1.1 million children who will face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition. UNICEF urgently requires US$146 million to address the humanitarian needs of children and women in the Sahel in 2012. Since the beginning of the year, about 250,000 children under 5 were treated for severe acute malnutrition in 5,200 health centres across the Sahel.

Cholera is known as a disease that affects the poor because of the lack of access to clean water and improved sanitation. As part of the emergency response to the nutrition crisis in the Sahel, the integrated cholera strategy used by UNICEF is aimed at reducing the overall risk of cholera epidemics with both preventive and response activities through closer collaboration between different sectors such as Health, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene and Communication for Development.

In line with this integrated cholera strategy, field activities in countries may include the training of community health workers on improved hygiene and sanitation practices, the sensitisation of people on how to treat their drinking water with chlorine and purification tablets, the implementation of mass media awareness-raising campaigns, the provision of appropriate sanitation and hygiene supplies to schools, the rehabilitation of water points and the distribution of diarrheal disease kits, oral rehydration solution and other supplies such as tents.

About UNICEF

UNICEF has saved more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization. We work tirelessly to help children and their families, doing whatever it takes to ensure children survive. We provide children with healthcare and immunization, clean water, nutrition and food security, education, emergency relief and more.

UNICEF is supported entirely by voluntary donations and helps children regardless of race, religion or politics. As part of the UN, we are active in over 190 countries – more than any other organization. Our determination and our reach are unparalleled. Because nowhere is too far to go to help a child survive.

For further information:

Stefanie Carmichael, Communications Specialist, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8866; Cell: (647) 500-4230, scarmichael@unicef.ca.
Tiffany Baggetta, Director, Communications and Brand, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8892; Cell: (647) 308-4806, tbaggetta@unicef.ca.