August 12, 2011 / 2:25 PM / 8 years ago

Cholera epidemic spreading in Somalia, WHO warns

GENEVA (Reuters) - A cholera epidemic is spreading in famine-hit Somalia, with alarming numbers of cases among people driven to the capital Mogadishu by a lack of food and water, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

The intestinal infection, often linked to contaminated drinking water, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, leaving small children especially vulnerable to death from dehydration, according to the United Nations agency.

Some 4,272 cases of acute watery diarrhea have been recorded so far this year just in Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, mainly children under age five, causing 181 deaths, Dr. Michel Yao of the WHO told a news briefing.

“The number of cases is two or even three times than what was there last year. So we can say that we have an epidemic of cholera going on,” Yao said. Seasonal outbreaks have been recorded for the past three years in the Horn of Africa country.

Cholera outbreaks have now been confirmed in several regions, according to the WHO, and Yao said population movements increased the risk of the disease spreading further.

An estimated 100,000 Somalis — driven by drought, famine in southern areas and fighting — have fled to Mogadishu over the past two months in search of food, water, shelter and protection, Adrian Edwards of the U.N. refugee agency said.

They join more than 370,000 driven from their homes earlier. Another 1,500 Somali refugees stream each day into Kenya, which now shelters some 440,000 at sprawling camps in Dadaab.

The worst-hit areas of Somalia are controlled by al Shabaab militants, who have waged a four-year insurgency against Somalia’s Western-backed government. They had prevented aid getting through but withdrew from Mogadishu last weekend.

In all, some 12.4 million people in the Horn of Africa — including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti — are affected by the worst drought in decades, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands of people have already died, it says.

A $2.4 billion U.N. appeal for the Horn of Africa is only about half-funded, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Two million children across the Horn of Africa already suffer from acute malnutrition and 500,000 could die if they don’t get help within weeks, the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF has warned. “We can save lives if we act now,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado.

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