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DR Congo: Cholera spreads in several cities in Katanga

Cholera hotspots are multiplying in several cities of Katanga, a mining Province in the south west of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Lubumbashi and Likasi, MSF emergency teams are treating patients and providing support to improve the treatment centers’ ability to respond.

Brussels, January 29, 2008 — Since the beginning of January, MSF has recorded more than 1,700 people with cholera in the cities of Lubumbashi, Bukama, and Likasi. All these people came from the poorer areas where bad hygiene conditions combined with high population density contribute to the flaring up of this extremely contagious disease.

“What we have seen in Lubumbashi was repeated in Likasi,” said Bertrand Perrochet, MSF emergency team coordinator. “Adequate measures to avoid the outbreak have not been taken by the health authorities. In the space of a few days the main referral hospitals in the district of Kenya in Lubumbashi and in the city of Likasi were overloaded. There were not enough beds, no continuous disinfection of the building... An alarming situation for a contagious disease that kills up to 50 percent of patients if left untreated.”

Cholera is caused by a waterborne bacteria that can also be transmitted through infected excrement and vomit. It causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting, and general weakness. If left untreated, patients may die very quickly of dehydration. Treatment consists of re-hydration through perfusion and/or oral solutions containing mineral salts and glucose.

MSF logisticians simultaneously improved the treatment center in Lubumbashi and built a new one in another neighbourhood in this city of 1.3 million people.

“Thanks to the opening of this second treatment center, the number of patients has become manageable on both sides,” adds Bertrand Perrochet. “These last days, 25 patients on average have come to be treated in each health center.”

In Likasi, a city of more than 300,000 people, a second emergency team has faced a similar situation: large numbers of patients treated in bad conditions and a hospital deprived of the necessary infrastructure to treat people correctly.

“In the last three weeks, more than 400 patients have solicited care in the only functioning treatment center in Likasi,” said Perrochet. “When we arrived, more than 60 new patients were coming every single day in a center which has a normal capacity of 35. There was not enough space or beds. Water and re-hydration solutions were missing as well. Hygiene conditions were catastrophic.”

MSF erected a temporary structure in order to treat patients and reduce the pressure on the Likasi hospital. Hygiene conditions and water supply have been drastically improved. Since Thursday, the MSF team has treated 170 patients.

The MSF emergency team in Congo responds almost all year long to cholera outbreaks in Katanga. The fact that this “disease of the poor” would strike at the heart of the economic capital of the country, Lubumbashi, and in one of the major cities of the mining Province of Katanga, Likasi, illustrates with irony the daily health emergency situation in DRC. MSF teams stay on their guard and are ready to adapt their intervention should new cholera outbreaks appear.

Fifteen people of the MSF Congo’s Emergency team currently work in Lubumbashi and Likasi. The team includes doctors, nurses, logisticians, and community health workers. In the first two weeks of January, MSF treated cholera patients in Bukama (400 km north of Lubumbashi). The outbreak there is now under control and MSF has handed over its activities to the Ministry of Health.