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Cholera kills nearly 500 in Cameroon since August 1, officials say

From Tapang Ivo Tanku, For CNN
  • Cameroon saw more than 9,300 cases of cholera last year
  • The Far North region is the hardest-hit
  • Cholera is spread through contaminated water
  • The government has set up treatment centers

Maroua, Cameroon (CNN) -- Public health officials say nearly 500 people have died of cholera in Cameroon this month, and 13,000 cases have been reported in the country this year.

More than 50 of this month's deaths were in the Far North region, the hardest-hit area so far. Residents in the Logone and Chari divisions of the region told CNN that the majority of people infected with the disease are children under the age of five and women.

Prof. Gervais Ondobo Andze, the director of disease control at the Ministry of Public Health, told journalists Monday that nine of the country's 10 regions are affected by cholera, an intestinal infection caused by ingestion of bacteria-contaminated food or water. It causes watery diarrhea and vomiting, which can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if not treated promptly. About 80 percent of cases can be cured by rehydrating the patient, according to the World Health Organization.

Andze told CNN Tuesday the government has opened treatment centers across the country and medical supplies have been dispatched to them all, but he emphasized that the battle against the disease must be a collective effort from both the government and the local population.

He advised people to drink only potable water -- water safe for drinking -- and not get their water from rivers, which can carry the disease downstream if infected fecal matter or bacteria is in it.

Andze also urged local officials to report all cases of cholera, so the government knows where the disease is and where to send resources. Many officials have only been reporting cases when someone has died of the disease.

In Maroua, the capital of the Far North region, the regional delegation of public health reported 1,380 cases of cholera so far this year. Dr. Valentine Ndikum, a senior public health official, predicted the number of cases could double in the coming days due to poor sanitary and hygienic conditions, and he lambasted what he said was a slow government response in fighting the disease.

Sanitary inspectors in the affected zones say only 5% of the nearly 3 million inhabitants of the region have toilets in their homes. Millions use bushes and nearby streams as makeshift toilets. The majority are cattle farmers who live in cramped huts with an average of eight children per family.

The semi-arid region has an erratic supply of potable water, mostly accessible only by the privileged. The poor rely on water from wells and streams for drinking and cooking.

The outbreak has been traced to the Logone River, on which thousands depend for their domestic activities, and the disease has gradually spread to other communities along the river.

Residents say medical supplies are inadequate and often don't reach those infected by the disease. The government has set up dozens of emergency units but they're consistently overcrowded with victims and always running short of basic medical supplies, residents said.

"I have lost my two children to the disease just this month alone. This epidemic has been for a year now in this region yet the government spends billions on political campaigns and travels, neglecting the vulnerable masses," Abubakar Alim, 53, told CNN in tears at a makeshift treatment camp.

In October, voters will go to the polls to elect a new president. Critics say political campaigns are outpacing health priorities.

"The ruling party, the Cameroon's People Democratic Movement, is visibly pumping billions into political campaigns and safari trips abroad. Why can't they allocate money to eliminate a simple disease like cholera?" asked a resident of Maroua, who asked to not be named.

The government's Public Health Ministry reported 9,395 cholera cases in 2010 -- 8,830 of which were in the Far North region, the worst outbreak in decades.

Many have blamed the protracted delays in fighting the epidemic on alleged embezzlement and misappropriation of state funds allocated for health projects and emergencies. In 2008, former public health minister Olanguena Awono was arrested for alleged misappropriation of some $154 million of foreign aid given to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Cameroon.

"Our government only turns to beg for intervention from the West only when scores drop dead,'' said Bah Theophile, a resident of the capital, Yaoundé.

Since the outbreak began in May 2010, humanitarian agencies such as Doctors Without Borders and Plan International have deployed resources to fight the disease. Doctors Without Borders opened a cholera treatment center at the Yaoundé University Hospital complex in May and treated more than 500 patients in the first four days the center was open, according to a statement on the group's website.

CNN's Alanne Orjoux contributed to this report