Lubumbashi/New York, February 21, 2003 - As the death toll from cholera rises dramatically, the international medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has dispatched medical teams and medicines to fight several epidemics in the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC).
The first outbreak of the current epidemic dates back to September 2001. Since then, there have been 19,000 cholera patients, with more than 1,200 deaths. During the last months of 2002 the epidemic spread from Katanga to East Kasai province, where MSF teams have treated more than 3,800 patients, of which 209 died. Since January 2003, local health authorities and MSF have seen an increase in patients with cholera in Katanga province.
"At the moment we see almost one hundred cholera patients a week in Lubumbashi town, and some three hundred in the whole of Katanga," says Alain Decoux, MSF Head of Mission in DRC. "And in East Kasai province the epidemic does not show any sign of stabilizing, with an average of 250 new cholera patients a week. In Mbuji Mayi town the figures seem to have decreased slightly, but on the periphery, especially around the mines, there has been a new increase for the past two weeks. Which means cholera is spreading from village to village."
"The health care system in DRC lies largely in ruins. Cholera is now becoming a permanent reality in the two provinces," explains Luc Nicolas, operational coordinator for MSF.
"Diamond mining is the main economic activity in East Kasai province, making it some kind of a 'Congolese Eldorado'. The population comes from all directions, hoping to find instant wealth," continued Alain Decoux. "Water, hygiene, and sanitation are not priorities. The social structure is extremely weak and mobility very high. In addition, the local population maintains traditional burial rites, which facilitates the spread of cholera. For instance, the first cholera cases appeared after a funeral ceremony. Therefore it is very hard for our teams to fight the epidemic. They spend a lot of time and energy in developing awareness among the population and educating them on the basic principles of hygiene promotion. This may bear fruits on the urban level now, but the lack of proper sanitation around the mines makes us fear another huge outbreak of the epidemic may occur in these regions."
Twelve international volunteers are currently working to fight the outbreak of cholera. They are assisted by almost one hundred locally hired staff. In East Kasa they supervise fourteen Cholera Treatment Centers (CTCs).
But cholera is not the only ongoing health crisis. Measles epidemics are also spreading. MSF teams are now conducting mass vaccination campaigns targeting more than 250,000 children in Kinkondja (Katanga province), Inongo (Bandundu province), Bikoro (Equator province) and Aketi (Oriental province) health zones.
An influenza epidemic has also been ongoing in Kinshasa since late 2002, putting half of the population at risk. To deal with this epidemic MSF, is providing extra support to 37 health centers by guaranteeing free access to treatment, training staff, and supplying medicines.