Big Story 10

Cholera threatens Congo's capital as hundreds die from lack of treatment

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Democratic Republic of Congo is racing to contain a cholera outbreak that has swept through villages ravaged by conflict and is now spreading quickly in the overcrowded capital, officials and health workers said on Tuesday.

Cholera outbreaks occur regularly in the vast Central African country but this is the worst in more than 20 years, said Didier Bompangue, government coordinator for the elimination of cholera.

The disease has killed at least 1,190 people and spread to 24 of the country’s 26 provinces since it broke out in July, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a briefing. About 55,000 cases have been recorded.

Congo’s main concern now is for the capital Kinshasa, a city of 12 million people with poor sanitation and lack of access to drinking water that facilitates the spread of the water-borne disease, Bompangue told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“On a national level, the situation is improving. If there is one place that worries us it’s Kinshasa,” Bompangue said.

The disease has killed 28 people and infected 411 in Kinshasa since the end of November, he said. The government has opened free treatment centers throughout the city, but patients must be isolated quickly or it will continue to spread.

“The numbers are going up very quickly (in Kinshasa),” said Caroline Holmgren, country representative for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Yet many people are also dying in rural areas where health centers have been destroyed by conflict and patients lack access to basic treatment, aid agencies said.

Most people recover from cholera if treated promptly with oral rehydration salts, but can die within hours if not.

About 60 percent of health facilities in the central Kasai region are not functioning since fighting broke out between government forces and local militia there in 2016, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The case fatality rate in the region is 14.5 percent compared to 2.1 percent nationally, according to WHO.

“The medicine is not expensive. It’s lack of access,” said IFRC’s Africa director Fatoumata Nafo-Traore.

“Cholera is preventable, it can be cured. We don’t need this type of crisis,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.