Tanzania cholera outbreak suddenly slows, U.N. says

Burundian refugees wait on the beach in Kagunga, Tanzania. (Credit: ICRC/L. Kamau)

Good news in Tanzania as efforts to halt a cholera outbreak among Burundian refugees that has killed 29 appears to be working, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The threat remains – there are roughly 100 new cases a day, down from the 915 each day reported last week – but situation is improving.

“The reduction in cases is largely due to the concerted approach to contain the spread of the outbreak through intensified measures to promote hygiene,” said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards to reporters. “For now the situation is improving, but clearly resolving it fully may take several weeks.”

Vigilance is necessary as refugees continue to flood the border town of Kagunga.

“Despite the downward trend we have seen in the last few days the situation is still dire,” Rufaro Chatora, WHO representative in the region, told reporters.

Some 70,000 people have crossed from Burundi into Tanzania in the past month; the result of political protests and a failed coup attempt in the country’s capital. Most people are crossing into Tanzania at Kagunga, located along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. There, the refugees wait for boats to take them down to the town of Kigoma. Tens of thousands sit on a beach roughly 800 meters wide and 500 meters deep, said Aimee Brown, Oxfam’s regional media and communications adviser for the Horn, East and Central Africa.

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“There is literally no space. There is no shelter. No shade. They are literally on the sand and rocks,” said Brown in an interview with Humanosphere, from Tanzania. “In all these locations you have large numbers of people in relative small spaces, which increases the risk of health problems.”

Medical staff provide assistance to sick Burundians as they arrive by boat in Kigoma, Tanzania. (Credit: ICRC/L. Kamau)

Medical staff provide assistance to sick Burundians as they arrive by boat in Kigoma, Tanzania. (Credit: ICRC/L. Kamau)

The United Nations is able to ferry only 1,800 people per day to Kigoma. Humanitarian groups are exploring other routes, but options are limited. For the estimated 40,000 people in Kagunga, the only choice is to wait.

“Our priority is to get all the refugees out of Kagunga because the situation is dire,” said Kahindo Maina, a senior UNHCR public health officer.

The refugees who make it to Kigoma must wait at Lake Tanganyika Stadium, a make-shift transportation center established by the Tanzanian government. They are then sent to the Nyarugusu Camp, to the northeast. The sudden influx of people to a small space that is hard to reach adds up to a serious problem. There are already reports of acute diarrhea in all three main locations where Burundian refugees are traveling.

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Getting people clean water is paramount.

“Basic needs do need to be met,” said Brown. “There is definitely a need to mount a rapid response. People are getting more and more clean water as we gear up the response. It needs to be scaled up when you see many people are having only one meal a day at this point.”

Oxfam is responding by providing clean drinking water and educating people about hygiene practices, such as hand washing, that can help prevent the spread of cholera. UNICEF increased its activities after word of the outbreak. It says treatment supplies were sent, in addition to supplies of water, food and sanitation support.

Once the short-term problem problem of cholera is dealt with, humanitarian agencies must continue to support the more than 110,000 total Burundian refugees living in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.N. estimates that the number could grow to 200,000 in the coming months and said $207 million is needed to provide adequate assistance.

 

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.