Battling Cholera in Freetown, Sierra Leone

MSF is working with Sierra Leone's Ministry of Health to counter a deadly cholera outbreak in the capital, Freetown.

Sierra Leone © Florence Demeulin/MSF

Cholera patients at Marcauley cholera treatment unit in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone’s capital. Freetown, is currently struggling to contain a cholera outbreak that has affected over 1,500 people and killed at least 17 to date. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, is already running three cholera treatment units in the city and has treated more than 500 patients. Because the number of people infected continues to grow, however, MSF plans to open two additional treatment facilities up in the next 10 days.

“We are moving quickly to increase our capacity to handle all the new patients that will arrive,” says Karen Van den Brande, MSF head of mission in Sierra Leone. “Our present cholera treatment facilities are stretched to the limit with patients. The patients that we see are of all ages, so it’s not just children or already weak people that are at risk.”

Many of the patients come from slum settlements, where proper systems for drainage and waste disposal are almost inexistent, leaving people ever more vulnerable to the spread of water-borne diseases like cholera. “The living conditions in the slums are a breeding ground for disease,” says Van den Brande. “You see children playing with rubbish and bathing in polluted waste water. The central water supply system is dysfunctional and many water points are contaminated. The risk of disease spreading in such places are really high unless strict precautions are taken.”

MSF is working with the Ministry of Health to disseminate health promotion messages about how people can protect themselves and others against the spread of disease. This includes washing hands properly, using only boiled water, and making sure that food is cooked or washed properly before consumption. Information about how and where to seek help if needed is also being communicated.

“It is crucial that the general public is aware, that they know how to seek help immediately if experiencing symptoms,” says Van den Brande. “Without help, people can die within 20 hours. Some patients are so dehydrated that they are in coma when they arrive.”

With the opening of two additional cholera treatment facilities in Freetown, the total number of beds will rise from 90 to a maximum of 200. MSF is also planning to open a cholera treatment unit in the town of Bo, where MSF has been managing a hospital since 2003.

MSF responded to cholera outbreaks in Freetown in 1986, 1995, and in 2006 and 2007. All told, MSF admitted more than 130,000 patients to its cholera treatment facilities across the world last year.