Cholera kills hundreds in Congo

Cholera outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Republic of Congo have humanitarian agencies scrambling for funds, and neighboring countries on high alert, the U.N. reports.

In a statement last week, the U.N. said the disease has affected nine of DR Congo’s 11 provinces, and the aid response is short on funds. At the beginning of this month, nearly 600 people had died from the disease in DR Congo, and thousands of others were ill.

“Efforts to combat the spread of cholera in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain underfunded,” reads the U.N. statement. “The lack of access to potable water is the single most important cause of recurring outbreaks of the disease in the country.”

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In the Republic of Congo, 340 cases have been reported since last summer, and nine people have died, according to the World Health Organization. But doctors say in the remote countryside, it is hard to accurately assess the real impact of the disease.

“Some deaths have not been taken into account because the [victims'] families have not reported them,” Jean Martin Mabiala, a doctor treating cholera patients in the Republic of Congo, told the WHO.

On the other side of DR Congo, which is roughly the size of Western Europe, neighboring Rwanda is on high alert, as the heart of the epidemic is just across the border. The Rwandan Ministry of Health today released a statement, saying 13 people had been diagnosed and successfully treated for the cholera this month. The ministry advised authorities to encourage hygiene and early detection, and encouraged people to postpone travel to DR Congo.

“I need to remind everyone is that this outbreak is a ticking bomb,” Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho said in the statement. “If we are not prepared, it could spread to our population.”

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Late last month, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the U.N.’s humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, said the disease has been found along the Congo River, a major commercial route.

“If our response fails, cholera is likely to continue spreading and to become endemic in the provinces where it was not,” she said, according to a U.N. report.

Cholera is a stomach infection caused by eating contaminated food or water. Resulting diarrhea and vomiting can cause severe dehydration and death without treatment. Cholera is relatively easily treated with oral rehydration salts, which nearly always results in a cure, according to the World Health Organization.

The WHO says roughly 7 percent of victims in DR Congo and Republic of Congo have died from the disease, more than twice the world-wide death rate.

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