In the Republic of the Congo, UNICEF and WHO launch initiatives to treat, combat and prevent cholera
By Guy Hubbard
ISLE M'BAMOU, Republic of Congo, 12 June 2012 – The diarrhoea and vomiting started at 3 a.m., and hours later, 12-year-old Steward Okoulokami was weak and losing weight. His panicked father, Dimitri, packed him into a dugout boat and brought him to Brazzaville.
VIDEO: UNICEF reports on a series of initiatives to treat, combat and prevent cholera in the Republic of the Congo.
“In the morning, around 8 a.m., when I looked at my son, he had lost a lot of weight and looked like a skeleton,” explained Dimitri. “So I thought, no, no, I must go to Brazzaville. When we got to Brazzaville, he was hospitalized and we spent five days there. On the sixth day we left and now, he is alive and in good health.”
A deadly outbreak
Dimitiri and his family live on Isle M'bamou, an island on the Congo River not far from the capital cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Residents say they have no electricity, no running water and no hospitals, so when the cholera outbreak hit, it was quickly overwhelming. No one knew what it was or where it had come from, and while Steward survived, his cousin was not so lucky.
“For my nephew, it was a short disease. It lasted only half a day,” Dimitiri said. “When he started having diarrhoea, we noticed that he became like a skeleton in only half a day. He lasted only one day. By the second night he was dead.”
The river is a porous border, with traders moving constantly between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo and the islands in between, carrying their cargoes of fish, cassava and charcoal. But they can also carry disease. The cholera outbreak on Isle M'bamou originated in northern DRC before moving down and across the river into the Republic of Congo.
When the outbreak hit Brazzaville, squatter settlements with poor sanitation were badly affected. Makeshift latrines feed directly into the same stream in which children play and people bathe.
“In Brazzaville, the hygiene conditions are very precarious, [especially] in some of the suburbs like the Tsieme zone,” explained World Health Organization (WHO) specialist Jean de Dieu Konongo. “The sanitation system is not working properly, and there isn’t enough drinking water available, and most of the houses are informal.”
In all, the Republic of the Congo recorded 775 cases of cholera and 32 deaths, although the real numbers may be higher. In response to the outbreak, UNICEF and WHO, through the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund, have launched a series of initiatives to treat, combat and prevent cholera.
Treatment and prevention
On Isle M'bamou, chlorination points have been established and workers have been trained to purify water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Latrines have been built in public spaces like markets and schools, and a social mobilization programme is teaching villagers the importance of hygiene and clean water, while children at school are learning to wash their hands with soap.
UNICEF and World Health Organization initiatives have built latrines and increased awareness about the importance of hand-washing to prevent illness. “The Central Emergency Response Fund has been very vital in bringing quickly assistance to the areas that were affected by cholera, for example these islands here in the river, between the two countries,” said Marianne Flach, UNICEF Representative in the Republic of the Congo. “There's no electricity, there's no clean water, they have no health centre. It’s a population that needs a lot of our assistance and we often forget about them, so it’s very good that we've been able to use the Central Emergency Response Funds to give assistance to these islands.”
Despite interventions in affected areas of the Republic of the Congo, the threat from across the river remains, so the Central Emergency Response Fund has committed US$4.4 million to UNICEF and US$4.6 million to WHO for cholera response in DRC.
The next rainy season is fast approaching, and with it comes the potential for new outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera. But with better access to clean water, latrines, and – most importantly – knowledge of hygiene and sanitation, communities in both countries have a much better chance of protecting themselves and their families.
“There is a saying that ‘ignorance kills’,” said Dimitri. “Before, I didn’t know about cholera, and that is why I lost my nephew. But now that I have this knowledge, it won't happen again.”