A cholera-hit slum of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, after heavy flooding in August 2012.
Photo courtesy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
By David Tereshchuk*
October 1, 2012—Any observer could be forgiven for feeling the West African nation of Sierra Leone has suffered quite enough. It has endured a devastating 12-year civil war, many decades of serious land degradation, the grabbing of its mineral wealth by other countries, and copes still with the endemic presence of malaria, which causes three-quarters of all the country’s infant deaths.
On top of all this misfortune, though, Sierra Leone has been additionally challenged in 2012 by an outbreak of cholera of well-nigh epidemic proportions.
Cholera has ravaged the country’s capital city, Freetown—in particular the slum settlements of the city and its surrounding regions, where residents live without proper drainage and waste disposal systems. Such lack of basic facilities leaves the population vulnerable to the spread of waterborne diseases, which has encouraged this deadly transmission of cholera.
The Sierra Leone Government has reported that well over 5,000 Leoneans were sickened by cholera in the first half of this year, and nearly 200 people died of the disease in that short time. Given a national population of just about 6 million, such a rate of transmission and such a fatality rate are both remarkably high. Health officials are seeing 40 new cases a day, and these comprise patients of all ages, not merely the expected vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.
The government has declared the outbreak a national emergency—and in the words of Health Ministry spokesman Jonathan Abass Kamara, "It's not yet an epidemic but it's getting close to that." Already the outbreak is without doubt the worst in the country's history.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is supporting its international medical partner GlobalMedic in a concentrated effort to reverse the rampage of this latest health calamity to hit Sierra Leone. And the key—as so often is the case—is working for a better water supply and improving the poor sanitary conditions that enabled the disease’s spread in the first place.
The program has at its heart the employment of water purification tablets. Known commercially as “Aquatabs,” they are soluble tablets that kill those microorganisms in water responsible for waterborne diseases like cholera—as well as typhoid, dysentery, and other such killer infections.
The GlobalMedic program for supplying such tablets, which UMCOR will fund in Sierra Leone from now until early next year, will help provide a total of nearly 15 million liters of safe, clean drinking water for the worst-affected populations.
On the ground, GlobalMedic is working closely with UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, whose focus is to ensure well-targeted distribution of the purification tablets. UNICEF has identified Sierra Leone as a high-priority country in need of such a water-purification effort. Neighboring countries of Guinea, Niger, and Mali have also suffered a higher-than-usual incidence of cholera in 2012. Many health experts are blaming this year’s exceptionally heavy rainy season, which badly flooded many of the region’s shanty towns and slums.
UMCOR’s manager of international disaster response, Rebecca Dobbins, emphasizes the vital nature of the Aquatabs program to Sierra Leone. “Without access to water-purification tablets,” says Dobbins, “the situation will only deteriorate further, causing more sickness and death among at-risk populations.”
Your contribution to International Disaster Response, Advance #982450, will help communities like Sierra Leone’s to counter the effects of diseases like cholera and other emergencies.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media analyst and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.