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Cholera/diarrhoea outbreak hits 18,000 in Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases have infected 18,000 people in Ethiopia over the last three weeks in many parts of the country, including the capital Addis Ababa, according to a document seen by Reuters.

A suspected cholera patient is pushed on a wheelbarrow to a clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 26, 2009. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The document -- minutes of a meeting attended by international health charities and U.N. agencies last Tuesday -- said half of moderate-to-severe cases of the 18,000 infections were cholera. It did not say how many were moderate-to-severe.

Most of the diarrhoeal illnesses that were not cholera were acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), health workers said.

“To date there are approximately 14,000 cases of AWD/Cholera (in the regions) and an additional 4,000 from Addis Ababa,” the minutes of the meeting said.

Addis Ababa usually suffers less from diarrhoea epidemics than other parts of the country, but the city’s health authorities are investigating the hygiene standards of hundreds of hotels and restaurants, according to local media.

Health workers, who declined to be named, told Reuters the fatality rate was 2 percent when the outbreak began but that it had been reduced as local and international agencies stepped up their response.

“The case fatality rate is falling as the response matures,” the minutes of the meeting said. “The epidemic is now in its second phase, case load taking the form of a series of peaks over a protracted period.”

Ethiopia’s Health Ministry said last week that 34 people had died from AWD but it had not yet confirmed any cholera cases.


The government and international charities are distributing antibiotics and emergency treatment centres have been opened across the country -- including under tents in the grounds of several hospitals in the capital.

Cholera is caught from contaminated water and food and it causes extreme diarrhoea and vomiting. It can spread quickly and kill an adult in one day without help, but it is easily treated when caught in its early stages.

Aid agencies now fear a religious festival scheduled for this month will worsen the outbreak of AWD and cholera.

“The Meskel religious festival (is a) major cause for concern,” the document said. “Up to 500,000 people are expected to gather for 10 days from 15-30 September with poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.”

The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its weekly bulletin for Ethiopia published on Monday that it was also concerned about the risk AWD will spread when schools re-open in mid-September.

The Horn of African nation -- that still uses an ancient calendar -- will also celebrate its new year on September 11 with thousands of revellers taking to the streets.

Some governments in Africa are often reluctant to admit to the presence of cholera for fear it could hamper agricultural exports and tourism.