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Relief workers battle cholera outbreak in East Africa

The severe intestinal symptoms of cholera can kill a person within hours   
December 18, 1997
Web posted at: 2:48 p.m. EST (1948 GMT)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- Rains fed by El Nino have soaked east Africa in recent weeks, contributing to the spread of a cholera outbreak that has claimed lives in Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Zanzibar, relief workers said.

Cholera spreads quickly and can kill within hours. The intestinal disease causes severe diarrhea, vomiting, muscular cramps and dehydration, and is spread by water and food that have been contaminated by infected feces.

World health officials say the situation in east Africa, where floodwaters reportedly have washed through latrines in many areas, is reaching epidemic proportions.

Aid worker Christian Valette tends to victims in a tent
icon 68K/5 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

On Thursday, U.N. relief workers in Zanzibar said 68 patients had been admitted to the island's clinics and hospitals since Wednesday, bringing the total to 638 hospitalizations in the last three weeks. Already, 118 have died, officials said.

"It's an epidemic -- it's not yet contained," said Helena Eversol, project officer with the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Zanzibar.

Uganda's New Vision newspaper reported Thursday that the disease had claimed 23 lives in Kampala and other parts of the country.

And at least 20 people reportedly have died this week in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

In Kenya, health workers on Tuesday said the death toll in Nairobi's slums had topped 30, and that the disease had killed 50 people in the eastern coastal areas and more than two dozen others in western Kenya.

Kenya's plight

Nairobi slum
Nairobi slums like this one are breeding grounds for cholera, because of the poor sanitation conditions   

In Nairobi slums, conditions are ripe for cholera to spread.

"Many people can be affected very fast," said Didakus Okhaimbo of Doctors Without Borders. "Cholera prevails where the hygienic standards are quite low."

Compounding the problem is a nurse's strike over low wages that has brought many government hospitals to a standstill.

Kenya's public heath services were once free, but are now said to be corrupt and in decline. That leaves international aid workers to deal with the nation's cholera victims.

The country is facing a national election in a week, and the electorate of 9 million already is blaming the current government for not dealing effectively with the epidemic.

The East African Standard reported Thursday that the government had launched "Cholera Hotlines" to help the public get information about the disease.

Death rate slowing in Zanzibar

Eversol said the only good news in Zanzibar is that the death rate is slowing, which means treatments are working. Two task forces have been formed to deal with the issue, she said.

Officials plan to clear the main public hospital, Mnazi Mmoja, of cholera cases and concentrate the sick in cholera camps.

Two of these already are operating at a school and a district health center, Eversol said. They both have water, electricity and proper sanitation facilities, which is vital in containing the disease. A third camp is expected to be available within days.

Zanzibar officials have closed all schools and banned social gatherings. The sale of water-based drinks and food, including ice cream, also has been banned.

Nairobi Bureau Chief Catherine Bond and Reuters contributed to this report.


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