News of an outbreak of cholera in Islamist-held Gao, northern Mali (map), has focused some international attention on the problem of cholera across the Sahel region. You can read about cholera’s causes, symptoms, and treatments here.
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.
As IRIN summarizes, the number of cases in parts of the Sahel, such as the Lake Chad basin, is lower than it was in 2011, but in Mali and Niger the number is set to rise between August and December, which is peak cholera time.
Decreases in cases this year in countries like Chad and Guinea are due to a combination of acquired immunity, prevention methods, and vaccines.
The Red Cross has worked near Gao to prevent the spread of cholera there, supporting “a treatment centre set up on the spot by the health authorities to prevent the disease from spreading…Local radio stations have begun to broadcast warning messages and recommendations, and Mali Red Cross volunteers are going door to door to distribute treatment products and water.” The Islamist group the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has also reportedly “told people not to drink the river water or bathe in it in a bid to contain the outbreak.”
Nevertheless, ongoing violence in northern Mali between various rebel groups could complicate efforts at prevention and treatment, potentially allowing the disease to spread. Cholera’s spread would add to the burdens Mali, Niger, and other countries in the sub-region already face, including displaced persons and lack of food. UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other organizations are stepping up their efforts to monitor and contain outbreaks, but the present chaos in northern Mali may well work against them.