Somalia: Displaced facing cholera threat

NAIROBI, 30 April 2007 (IRIN) - An outbreak of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea is adding to the dire humanitarian conditions endured by the homeless in camps around the Somali capital, Mogadishu, medical sources said on Monday. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by three months of heavy fighting in the city.

"We have had 1,111 cases of cholera in our camp alone," said Hawa Abdi, a doctor, whose 26-hectare compound, 20km south of Mogadishu, has been turned into a camp for displaced people. She said most of the patients were being cared for under trees.

The mortality rate was still low, with only 15 deaths since the outbreak in March, she said.

However, the displaced were getting weaker, she added, and diseases were likely to spread due to overcrowding and lack of proper sanitation facilities, and claim more lives. "If conditions do not improve soon, it [the mortality rate] will most certainly go much higher," said Abdi.

She said she was receiving reports on deteriorating health conditions from other camps where the displaced from Mogadishu have assembled.

"I suspect the problem is related to the water people are drinking and the total lack of sanitation in the camps," she added.

In a report last week, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the number of cholera/acute watery diarrhoea cases in southern and central Somalia since 1 January was estimated at more than 17,000, with 600 deaths. The report said the cases were primarily concentrated in Mogadishu and the Lower Shabelle region, where most of the displaced went. "With continuing displacement and the onset of the Gu [long] rains, the number of cases is expected to continue to rise," OCHA warned.

Abdi said her facility, which was receiving about 30 patients per day, was running out of such basic supplies as oral rehydration salts. "We are getting more and more people by the day and the supplies we have are not going to last very long."

The camp's medical team, all volunteers, was "working day and night to contain the situation", she added, appealing for help both for her staff and for the displaced. Food, clean water, shelter material and medicines were all needed.

An estimated 365,000 people fled Mogadishu between 1 February and 27 April. "This figure represents almost a third of the city's estimated population," stated the OCHA report.

Meanwhile, calm is reportedly returning to Mogadishu after combined Ethiopian and government troops gained control of the city from rival militias. "There has been no gunfire since Friday," said a local journalist.

Widespread looting in the city at the weekend had also been brought under control. "The looting was at its worst on Friday and Saturday, but now everything is returning to normal with businesses reopening," he added.

The government appointed two former warlords to senior government positions. Muhammad Umar Habeb, better know as Muhammad Dhere, was appointed mayor of Mogadishu, while Abdi Hassan Qeybdid was named national police chief.

Both men were members of a coalition of warlords, which, in June 2006, was chased out of the city by the Union of Islamic Courts, in turn defeated by the combined Ethiopian and Somali government forces in late December.