U.N.: Cholera scourge now ravaging Somalia

Jeffrey Gettleman / New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya — A cholera epidemic is sweeping across Somalia, the United Nations said on Friday, as thousands of starving people flee famine zones and pack into crowded camps in the country’s capital, Mogadishu.

According to the U.N. World Health Organization, 181 people have died from suspected cholera cases in a single hospital in Mogadishu, and there have been several other confirmed cholera outbreaks across the country.

“We don’t see the end of it,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. “As long as we have people on the move, in crowded places and using contaminated water, we will see a rise in cases. All the causes are still there.”

Parts of southern Somalia are in the grip of a famine, the result of years of conflict and one of the worst droughts in 60 years. Compounding the problem are the limitations of the transitional government of Somalia, which controls little more than the capital — and it is a loose control at that — and much of the country is in the hands of a group of Islamist militants, al-Shabab, who have forced out many Western aid organizations.

U.N. agencies and private aid organizations are struggling to respond to the needs, and though some progress has been made in recent weeks, many al-Shabab areas are essentially off-limits. More than 100,000 people have recently fled famine areas and settled in makeshift camps in Mogadishu, which have become breeding grounds for measles, cholera and other diseases.

Cholera, one of the developing world’s worst scourges, is caused by a bacteria that infects the small intestine and is spread through dirty water.

It is easily treated with oral rehydration salts and antibiotics. But many health centers in Somalia lack even these basic supplies. As a result, those who get cholera, especially children, can die of dehydration within days or even hours of being infected.

“It’s moving so fast from one person to another,” Jasarevic said. “It’s an epidemic for sure.”

The U.S. government estimates that at least 29,000 Somali children have died so far from the famine, and many more are expected to die unless enough emergency food and trained medical personnel can reach the famine areas soon.