Guinea-Bissau

Cholera epidemic spreading quickly in Guinea-Bissau

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GENEVA, Oct 24 (Reuters) - A cholera epidemic is spreading quickly in Guinea-Bissau, where campaigning for an upcoming election could put even more people at risk, United Nations agencies said on Friday.

Some 12,225 people in the West African state have caught cholera so far this year and 201 have died, raising fears among aid workers that the water-borne disease could resurge on the devastating scale seen in 2005.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 1,000 people were getting infected each month in Guinea-Bissau, with the capital Bissau worst hit.

Aid workers fear that large gatherings of people ahead of next month's election may intensify the transmission of cholera, which can spread through contaminated water used for drinking or preparing food.

"With the start of the electoral campaign for the legislative elections that will take place on November 16th there are concerns of (a) new increase in cases, as people gather in large numbers and travel in absence of adequate hygiene conditions," UNICEF said in a statement.

Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, suffered a large-scale cholera epidemic three years ago that made 25,000 people ill and killed more than 400.

While neighbouring countries including Senegal, Mali, Benin and Niger have recently seen cholera rates decline, the disease remains problematic in Guinea-Bissau because of crumbling infrastructure and local rites, U.N. officials said.

In the capital Bissau, where water and sanitation systems are in dire need of investment, only one in five people have access to running water, and that is not drinkable, UNICEF said.

And local funeral rites, in which mourners drink the water used to bathe the deceased's body, can also encourage the spread of cholera, a UNICEF spokeswoman said.

Young children are especially vulnerable to the dehydrating disease, which begins with acute diarrhoea and can lead to kidney failure.

(Reporting by Jonathan Lynn; Editing by Caroline Drees)

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