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Friday, March 7, 2014
Ngala Killian Chimtom
- This death toll from a cholera epidemic in Cameroon’s North and Far North provinces stands at 420, according to public health minister André Mama Fouda. The outbreak of the waterborne disease throws an unwelcome spotlight on inadequate access to clean water and sanitation, particularly in the country’s rural north. The Cameroonian government is struggling to implement an effective cholera strategy, despite the fact that the epidemic could be eradicated with simple measures.
Cholera is an intestinal infection caused by a bacterium in water or food and leads to profuse watery diarrhoea, loss of fluids, vomiting and abdominal pain. About 7,000 citizens have contracted the disease this year.
Civil society groups blame government for not drawing up an efficient plan to combat cholera, demanding more money is made available to implement basic measures, such as sanitation, clean water and education about personal hygiene.
“The government is fully aware that this part of the country is prone to cholera,” laments Honoré Ahmed, programme officer at aid organisation Association of Septentrion Development. “By now, we should have permanent measures in place with which to fight the epidemic.”
The discovery of new cholera cases in the country’s main cities, Yaoundé and Douala, in early September has cast additional doubts about government’s capacity to prevent the disease.
He criticised president Paul Biya and his government for spending the country’s wealth on “leisure trips abroad”, while Cameroonians continue to die from a preventable disease.
In Cameroon, only one in 20 residents have access to toilets and less than a third of the population has access to safe drinking water, admits Mama Fouda.
In the country’s north, the situation is even worse. Patrice Hassana, an engineer who works in the region, complained in an open letter to government: “Today, we have only one toilet serving 4,000 people in the Far North Region.”
To eradicate cholera, government will need to address water and sanitation issues, but also poverty. Dr Yves Kueté Fotié, medical practitioner at the Mokolo Health Unit in the Far North told journalists at a press briefing that “poverty is no doubt the main cause and facilitator of the disease. You can tell people over and over to wash their hands with soap before meals, but what happens when they don’t have the means to buy soap?”
According to the 2005 national population and housing census, 40 percent of Cameroon’s 19.4 million people live on less than one dollar a day.
In response to the outbreak – and the accompanying harsh criticism of the country’s health policies – government has started to roll out a two-phase plan to address cholera, worth five million dollars.
During the first phase of the programme, which started in August, government has started to supply water purification tablets and truck clean water to vulnerable areas in the North and Far North regions as well as parts of the Adamawa region. It has also handed out medical kits to local health workers and trained them in cholera emergency response.
Phase two will start in December and address the root causes of the recurring outbreaks, government promises. Over eight months, it will renovate 200 wells and drill 50 new ones. Moreover, 200 latrines will be constructed in the two most affected regions where people generally defecate in the bush.
Government has also launched a public awareness campaign, during which Mama Fouda called on the population to “avoid drinking unchlorinated water and eating at makeshift markets where food is not well preserved”.
He also encouraged Cameroonians to prepare their own oral rehydration solution to treat diarrhoea by mixing salt, sugar and lime fruit in boiled water. State media have been commissioned to produce programmes in all national languages that will give additional practical advice on how to avoid contracting the disease and how to treat it.
International aid organisations have also come to the party and are assisting government in efforts to educate the population.
Children’s aid organisation Plan International and the Red Cross have sent out 200 volunteers to the Far North and North regions to educate people about hygiene. And as schools opened their doors for the new school year in early September, United Nations children’s fund UNICEF began to educate school children about basic hygiene, such as hand washing before meals, using latrines and boiling water.
In addition, some school administrations have banned the sale of cooked food on school campuses or asked food vendors to present a sanitation certificate before they are permitted to sell food to pupils.