By: Arohi Isha Varma, International Medical Corps
In September 2010 cases of cholera reached critical levels in Cameroon in one of the country’s worst reported outbreaks in 20 years. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, International Medical Corps has been implementing a comprehensive program to contain the epidemic as well as develop long-term measures to limit the reappearance of the waterborne disease.
Cholera is a diarrheal disease caused by the ingestion of water or food contaminated with the bacterium, vibrio cholerae. Cholera outbreaks are common in areas where safe water, sanitation, food safety, and hygiene are inadequate. Some five to ten percent of those exposed to the bacteria develop acute watery diarrhea that can lead to severe dehydration, and even death, within hours without proper treatment. If the infection is left untreated, the fatality rate can be as high as 30-50 percent. However, treatment is as simple as drinking large amounts of water and administering rehydration salts.
From May 2010 to November 2010, Cameroon experienced more than 6,900 cumulative cases of cholera and 455 related deaths. Twenty-two out of the 28 districts of the Far North regions and five out of 15 North regions of Cameroon were affected by the outbreak. By the start of 2011, the current epidemic was contained and International Medical Corps’ focus in Cameroon shifted to effectively controlling the reemergence of cholera through programs in water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as the implementation of emergency response planning to ensure national preparedness. Today, International Medical Corps is working to improve access to safe drinking water and implementing sanitation and hygiene services that will benefit approximately 23,000 inhabitants of Cameroon’s Mokolo sub-division.
Before International Medical Corps’ intervention, residents of our partner communities were forced to travel distances of up to three kilometers to retrieve drinking water. Moreover, the existing water pumps were often not maintained, became easily contaminated, or could not guarantee water throughout the year. International Medical Corps is working with local villages to build water pumps, latrines and nine new wells to ensure sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Locals have been trained on how to build, use, and maintain wells and hand pumps. In addition, International Medical Corps will train twelve water pump technicians and help build and support nine village water/sanitation management committees.
Since the lack of access to latrines in rural Cameroon often leads to open defecation, drinking water sources are prone to contamination from fecal bacteria. International Medical Corps has identified eight schools and 200 households without access to latrines and will implement latrine construction activities in the coming year.
Because the effective prevention of cholera requires widespread knowledge of safe sanitation practices, International Medical Corps is using the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach to build local knowledge and encourage communities to take action on sanitation. Fifty community health volunteers, specializing in prevention and control, and 50 health clubs, specializing in good hygiene practices, will be trained to uphold the sustainable sanitation and hygiene practices required to keep their communities healthy.
International Medical Corps has been working in Cameroon since 2008, providing relief for refugees from the Central African Republic as well as for local communities. Today, International Medical Corps continues to provide primary health care, nutritional support, gender-based violence services, HIV/AIDS treatment and capacity strengthening activities, and to deliver technical and material support to 18 Ministry of Health facilities. International Medical Corps has extensive experience in cholera outbreak response, management, and prevention and is currently responding to the cholera outbreak in Haiti. In addition, the organization has also been active in providing treatment and supporting the long-term recovery from recent epidemics in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Iraq. Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene are top priorities for the organization, with water and sanitation programs currently operating in Haiti, Somalia, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, International Medical Corps’ mission has been consistent: relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease, by delivering vital health care services that focus on training. This approach of helping people help themselves is critical to returning devastated populations to self-reliance. For more information visit our website at www.InternationalMedicalCorps.org. Also see us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.