NAIROBI, 24 February (IRIN) - The
international medical aid NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has dispatched
medical teams and medicines to fight several epidemics in the Democratic
Republic the Congo (DRC), including a cholera outbreak that first erupted
about 18 months ago, MSF reported on Friday.
According to MSF, since September 2001, there have been 19,000 cholera patients, with more than 1,200 deaths. During the last months of 2002, the epidemic spread from Katanga Province to Kasai Oriental Province, where MSF teams have treated more than 3,800 patients, of which 209 died.
Since January 2003, local health authorities and MSF have reported an increase in patients with cholera in Katanga.
"At the moment, we see almost 100 cholera patients a week in Lubumbashi town, and some 300 in the whole of Katanga," said Alain Decoux, MSF Head of Mission in DRC. "And in East Kasai Province the epidemic does not show any sign of stabilising, with an average of 250 new cholera patients a week. In Mbuji-Mayi town, the figures seem to have decreased slightly, but on the periphery, especially around the mines, there has been a new increase for the past two weeks, which means cholera is spreading from village to village."
The announcement follows a similar report on 12 February from the International Federation of the Red Cross.
"The health care system in DRC lies largely in ruins. Cholera is now becoming a permanent reality in the two provinces," said Luc Nicolas, operational coordinator for MSF.
"Diamond mining is the main economic activity in East Kasai Province, making it some kind of a 'Congolese Eldorado'. The population comes from all directions, hoping to find instant wealth," noted Decoux.
"Water, hygiene, and sanitation are not priorities. The social structure is extremely weak and mobility very high. In addition, the local population maintains traditional burial rites, which facilitate the spread of cholera. For instance, the first cholera cases appeared after a funeral ceremony," he said.
"Therefore it is very hard for our teams to fight the epidemic. They spend a lot of time and energy in developing awareness among the population and educating them on the basic principles of hygiene promotion. This may bear fruit on the urban level now, but the lack of proper sanitation around the mines makes us fear that another huge outbreak of the epidemic may occur in these regions."
The MSF team is led by 12 international volunteers, assisted by almost 100 local staff. In Kasai Oriental, they supervise 14 cholera treatment centres.
MSF noted that cholera was not the only ongoing health crisis in DRC. Measles epidemics are also spreading, and MSF teams are now conducting mass vaccination campaigns targeting more than 250,000 children in Kinkondja (Katanga Province), Inongo (Bandundu Province), Bikoro (Equateur Province) and Aketi (Orientale Province) health zones.
Meanwhile, an influenza epidemic has been ongoing in Kinshasa since late 2002, putting half of the population at risk. To deal with it, MSF said it was providing extra support to 37 health centres by guaranteeing free access to treatment, training staff, and supplying medicines.
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