Malaria deaths are mounting in Cameroon, doctors say

Story highlights

Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from malaria, WHO says

Recent rains and floods in northern Cameroon created ideal conditions

Mosquitoes spread the disease

Critics say Cameroon's president isn't doing enough to stop the outbreak

CNN  — 

Nearly 800 people have died in a recent malaria outbreak in northern Cameroon, one described by public health officials as “a severe and sudden epidemic.”

Doctors treating more than 12,000 victims of the disease say those who died in the past three weeks were mostly young children and pregnant women.

Heavy rains have flooded the region around Maroua, giving mosquitoes ideal breeding conditions.

“This is a severe and sudden epidemic. I see no end in sight,” Dr. Amos Ekane, a malaria specialist treating more than 2,000 victims in Maroua, told CNN.

Wednesday, a panel of Cameroonian journalists on state radio criticized the government for not spreading the news about the outbreak and not requesting international aid.

According to the Public Health Ministry, more than 12,000 people are seriously ill and have been admitted to hospitals. But there are fewer than 10 treatment centers are available to help those who’ve contracted the mosquito-borne illness, and thousands of children and women are forced to sleep in the open or in overcrowded rooms without mosquito nets.

“Three of my children have died here. Here is my wife lying helplessly with drips tied to this tree,” Abubakar Ardo Miro told CNN, pointing out the conditions at the overcrowded Maroua regional hospital.

“Only a few qualified physicians are available in the regional government hospital to handle malaria cases. This cannot yield a favorable result,” Ekane warned.

The Cameroon Medical Council – a body governing the medical core in the West African nation – estimates a ratio of one doctor to every 40,000 patients. Less than 1,000 physicians currently work in the country, the council says, and toil under poor conditions and low wages.

“This is really a mess to the Cameroon government,” Tataw Eric Tano, a newspaper publisher in Cameroo, told CNN by phone.

The government footed the bill to transport thousands of voters to parliamentary and municipal elections earlier this month, he said, but is not transporting dying patients to other areas with less-crowded hospitals.

Observers have criticized President Paul Biya of ignoring the mounting malaria death toll as he focuses on lavish preparations to celebrate his 31 years in the presidency November 6.

“Even the propaganda state radio CRTV is talking against this,” said political analyst Prince Tanda.

Health experts blame the upsurge of malaria cases on the poor use of malaria nets that were distributed free of charge among nearly 9 million Cameroonians in 2010.

But a dwindling economy and the scarcity of food has forced some families to use the nets for other purposes.

“There is no reason for me to sleep under this net while my children need food to eat,” Elias Mbengono, a local fisherman, told CNN as he demonstrated how he could use the nets to catch fish for his family.

Climate change researcher Kevin Enongene said recent heavy rains and flooding in Northern Cameroon have transformed villages into mosquito breeding grounds. Lake Chad continues to spill water over its banks and no levee has been created to stop the flood, Enongene said.

“This should be taken seriously,” he added.

Public health experts are now targeting the heads of families in a daily campaign to stave off the malaria epidemic in Maroua.

“Sleep under the mosquito bed net. Do not use them as fishing nets,” one campaign banner read.

But state public health officials are raising fears that the death toll could reach the thousands in the next few weeks if international support is not received soon.

More than 660,000 people around the world died from malaria in 2010, according to the World Health Organization.