Lebanon: MSF vaccinates people against cholera as disease continues to spread

MSF increases prevention and treatment efforts in Lebanon amid unprecedented number of cholera outbreaks globally.

Cholera vaccination campaign in Lebanon

Lebanon 2022 © Mohamad Cheblak/MSF

NEW YORK/BEIRUT, NOVEMBER 17, 2022—Following Lebanon’s first recorded cholera case in almost three decades, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has started vaccinating people in the north and northeast of the country, where the most cases have been recorded. MSF’s vaccination effort is part of a national campaign launched by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health after the country received 600,000 cholera vaccine doses to administer in coordination with various international and local actors. Since the cholera outbreak was declared on October 6, 19 deaths and 3,671 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported.

“It’s been five days since we started vaccinating and, so far, we have vaccinated 14,224 people,” said Caline Rehayem, MSF deputy medical coordinator in Lebanon. “Our teams are going from door to door in neighborhoods, visiting homes, shops, and camps actively seeking out people to get vaccinated and to raise awareness on the importance of vaccination against this highly contagious disease.”

MSF’s goal is to vaccinate 150,000 people in Arsal, Akkar, Tripoli, and Baalbak-Hermel. Specifically, teams are targeting people—including refugees—who are living in poor, overcrowded areas that heighten the risk of contracting infectious diseases. Cholera can spread rapidly in settings without clean water and proper sanitation.

In addition to vaccination, meaningful action must be taken to ensure that people have proper access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in the country. The ongoing economic and fuel crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated the cholera outbreak; people in Lebanon have been forced to rely on water sources that might be contaminated for their drinking water, like polluted rivers and ponds, and old and weak waste management systems are leaking into the streets and households.

“To be able to effectively curb the outbreak, it is crucial to enhance cholera prevention measures, of which vaccination is one of the critical elements,” said Marcelo Fernandez, MSF head of mission in Lebanon. “However, if no meaningful actions are taken to ensure people have proper access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in the country, we can expect cholera and other waterborne infectious diseases to resurface regularly in Lebanon.”

In addition to administering cholera vaccines, MSF is treating sick patients. In Bekaa Valley, teams are running two cholera treatment centers—one in Bar Elias and one in Arsal—with a total capacity of seventy beds. Oral rehydration points are also being set up for people who do not require hospitalization in Arsal, as well as Tripoli.

MSF has also provided technical training to Lebanese health workers on the treatment of cholera, mobilized health education teams to raise awareness about the disease, and distributed hygiene kits to help people maintain essential household and personal hygiene in the Bekaa Valley, specifically in Bar Elias, Akkar, Baalbak-Hermel, and Arsal. So far, MSF teams have provided more than 17 trainings to 148 medical and paramedical workers.

Lebanon is just one of approximately 30 countries currently experiencing cholera outbreaks—an unusually high number of countries—including Haiti and Syria. This unprecedented rise in cases is due to climate factors like floods and droughts, conflict, and forced displacement, among other factors. There is currently a global shortage of oral cholera vaccines.

MSF first began working in Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war and has been present in the country without interruption since 2008. Today, MSF provides free medical care for vulnerable communities throughout Lebanon, including people in Bekaa Valley, Akkar, and South Beirut. Services include mental health, sexual and reproductive health, pediatric care, vaccinations, and treatment for non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension. With more than 600 staff, MSF conducts approximately 150,000 consultations every year in Lebanon.