Cholera Epidemic

8/27/2012, 2:37 p.m.

Cholera Epidemic Envelops Coastal Slums in West Africa

DAKAR, SENEGAL -- A fierce cholera epidemic is spreading through the coastal slums of West Africa, killing hundreds and sickening many more in one of the worst regional outbreaks in years, health experts said.

Cholera, transmitted through contact with contaminated feces, was made worse this year by an exceptionally heavy rainy season that flooded the sprawling shantytowns in Freetown and Conakry, the capitals of Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea.

In both countries, about two-thirds of the population lack toilets, a potentially lethal threat in the rainy season because of the contamination of the water supply. Doctors Without Borders said there had been nearly twice as many cholera cases so far this year as there were in the same period in 2007 in Sierra Leone and Guinea, when it said the area experienced its last major outbreak.

Already, more than 13,000 people suffering from the disease's often fatal symptoms -- diarrhea, vomiting and severe dehydration -- have been admitted to hospitals in the two nations' capitals, and 250 to 300 have died, Doctors Without Borders said.

In Sierra Leone, the government declared the cholera outbreak a national emergency last week, while aid workers in Guinea said the outbreak was unlikely to have reached its peak yet. Both countries have been wracked by years of civil and political unrest, with Sierra Leone still recovering from a decade of bloody civil war that drove thousands from rural areas into the city's slums, and with Guinea emerging from a half-century of often brutal dictatorship.

Rains have already contributed to cholera deaths in the landlocked nations of Mali and Niger as well, health officials said.

Aid workers said the number of cases of the highly contagious disease continued to increase, particularly in Freetown, where most live in slums and children swim in polluted waters. Often, patients arrive at treatment centers in poor condition.

"They come barely conscious because they are severely dehydrated," said Natasha Reyes Ticzon, a cholera field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Freetown. "We've had some deaths because they come too late."

There have been more than 11,600 cholera cases in Sierra Leone since January, at least 216 of them fatal, according to the country's health minister, Zainab Bangura. More than 1,000 new cases a week are being recorded in Freetown, health officials said.

In Guinea, there have been 80 deaths out of 2,700 cases so far.