FREETOWN (AlertNet) – Sierra Leone has declared a cholera outbreak that has left 176 people dead since the start of the year a national humanitarian emergency, officials said Friday.
Jonathan Abass Kamara, public relations officer for Sierra Leone's health ministry, said the outbreak was the worst in the West Africa country's history.
"It's not yet an epidemic but it's getting close to that," Kamara told AlertNet.
Sierra Leone has recorded 10,800 cases of cholera – a water-borne infection of the small intestine that causes severe diarrhoea and vomiting – since the beginning of this year.
Cases have occurred in eight districts: Port Loko, Kambia, Tonkolili, Bo, Moyamba, Bombali, Pujehun and the Western Area.
Kamara said the Western Area, which includes the capital Freetown, is the most seriously affected, with 4,965 cases and 63 deaths since January 1.
The outbreak has accelerated with the onset of Sierra Leone's rainy which traditionally lasts from May to October, and is currently at its peak.
"This is the rainy season. You expect that's when water-borne diseases occur," said Unisa Sesay, spokesman for Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma. "The environment is ideal for it to spread very widely."
Of particular concern was the increase in cholera cases in Freetown, Red Cross emergency health coordinator Amanda McClelland said in a statement.
"There have been over 250 patients a day in Freetown health centres in just the last week," she added.
The declaration of a national humanitarian emergency came after the president chaired a meeting on Thursday of officials from international aid agencies including UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.
Dr. Kisito Daoh, Sierra Leone's chief medical officer, told AlertNet the declaration was intended to galvanise international support to help stem the outbreak.
"A lot of our partners would now be able to ask their donor countries or donor agencies to provide extra support," he said.