Cholera strikes remote ethnic group

MANILA, 21 April 2011 (IRIN) - Health officials in the Philippines are struggling to contain a cholera outbreak in a remote area on the western island of Palawan.

"There was no potable water, no toilets. The tribesmen defecated everywhere, and used contaminated water to both wash and as a source of drinking water," Manuel Mapue, who headed a government medical mission dispatched to the area, told reporters.

At least 20 people have died and hundreds more have become sick, the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) [ ] reported on 20 April.

Seventeen of the 22 villages in the town of Bataraza on Palawan island were affected by the outbreak, which began in March and slowly progressed, affecting more than 500 people, the report said.

Twenty-one people died from diarrhoea in the nearby village of Rizal, although officials say it was too early to suggest the cases were connected, the local Red Cross said.

A lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation facilities and toilets all contributed to the spread of the disease. The first few who died were also buried near the main river system, contaminating the main source of water.

Those affected were members of the Palawan ethnic group, cave-dwellers in the remote jungles of Bataraza, who live off the land. Their location was so remote it was only accessible after a four-hour walk from the nearest village that had access to any semblance of rudimentary health facilities, officials said.

The NDRRMC in Manila said the medical team had set up a temporary field hospital near the area, and distributed medicine to stem the disease's spread.

"We are closely monitoring the situation, and for the time being, the local authorities in cooperation with Department of Health Officials are handling the situation," Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino, told IRIN.

Outbreak slows

Catherine Marie Martin, director of the Disaster Management Services of the Philippine Red Cross, said cholera had been endemic in the remote area for years, and that authorities had not yet declared the outbreak over.

"Almost every year, there is a cholera outbreak in the area. But what is important to note is that there has been a continued reduction of cases and the deaths have been static, meaning it has stopped for almost a week now," Martin said.

The Red Cross had enlisted the help of local leaders to talk to the community and involve the locals in putting up pit latrines in strategic locations, Martin said.

"It requires a change of mind-set, so we engaged the local elders because the villagers will only listen to them," she said.

According to Survival [ ] - an organization working for the rights of tribal people worldwide - there are some 40,000 Palawan on the island, both in the mountainous interior and in the lowlands. Some are very isolated and have little contact with outsiders, the group says.