Sierra Leone government criticized for its slow and poor response to cholera outbreak as Red Cross steps in

18 August 2012

Since the outbreak of cholera and diarrhoea in the West African state of Sierra Leone several months ago, hundreds have died needlessly, as the government dithered in amassing a co-ordinated response to stem the outbreak.

The government is being accused by local NGOs of indifference to the needless loss of lives in the country.

According to a statement released yesterday by the African Press Organization (APO); “The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society (SLRCS) are responding to a growing cholera crisis in the capital Freetown and surrounding areas.”

Although the government of Sierra Leone has declared the cholera outbreak as a national emergency after 176 deaths and 10, 800 reported cases since January, IFRC notes that;  “there has been a spike in reported cases since mid-July and the onset of the rainy season.  Over the past 5 weeks, 6000 cases alone have been confirmed. But there are fears that many other cases have not been officially reported.” 

“This current outbreak of cholera has the potential to be devastating and is proving very difficult to control,” said Amanda McClelland, IFRC Emergency Health Coordinator.

“We are particularly concerned by the rising numbers in Freetown, which suffers from overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of safe water access – all factors which contribute to this deadly disease. There have been over 250 patients a day in Freetown health centres in just the last week.”

The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal for 1.1 million Swiss francs to help the SLRCS to strengthen its response against the epidemic.

“The level of funding we have now is simply not enough to handle this emergency”, says McClelland. 

“We need to mobilize and act now and prevent as many deaths and new cases as possible. To wait until we see the number of deaths in recent outbreaks like Zimbabwe and Haiti is a mistake.  This can be prevented and controlled with enough of the right resources.”

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that can cause acute diarrhoea and vomiting and can kill in hours.

People get the infection by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

The IFRC is now concerned that the disease could spread to other parts of the country.  Neighbouring Guinea, parts of Mali and Niger have also been affected by the outbreak.

The IFRC says that, funds raised from the IFRC appeal will be used to organize awareness activities on good hygiene and sanitation in four of the districts affected by the cholera outbreak – Kambia, Port Loko, Tonkolli and Moyamba.

According to the IFRC; “ SLRCS Red Cross staff and volunteers, who have been responding to this epidemic throughout the year, will chlorinate wells, and make house to house visits to educate community members on how prepare oral rehydration salts solution.

“The rehabilitation of water sources and construction of latrines will also be a priority as efforts continue to contain this epidemic.”

The IFRC and SLRC are working in coordination with the local authorities, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners across the affected areas.

The Red Cross says that; “an IFRC Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT), comprising experts in health, water and sanitation was deployed to the country earlier this week to support the SLRCS.”

This much needed rapid international response, comes after the government was accused of indifference and urged last week by the country’s civil society groups and aid agencies ‘to expedite response to put an end to the cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone’.

The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network of Sierra Leone (WASH-NET), says that together with partners, they have “noticed with dismay the cholera outbreak which has claimed precious lives”.

In a statement received by the Sierra Leone Telegraph this morning, WASH-NET says that:

“With the official pronouncement of the outbreak by the Government of Sierra Leone, action needs to be taken to reverse the spread of this deadly crisis.

“This urgent call is part of our collective effort as a network of CSOs to raise the hygiene and sanitation profile and to demand strong government action to stop needless deaths from this preventable illness.

“We continue to greatly acknowledge the vital contributions of the Government of Sierra Leone together with its partners like UNICEF, WHO and others but more still needs to be done.

“We feel there are still more to be done and hence we call on the ministry to continue to support the Blue Flag Volunteers who administer basic first aid and give out lifesaving rehydration salts to people suffering from severe diarrhoea and cholera.

“Members of the Network have visited various hospitals and have seen the need for urgent action needed by the government to save lives.

“In the current call for circulars by the Government of Sierra Leone, we have also noticed with disappointment that there are no separate budget lines for water and sanitation. This is despite our government recently having made commitments during the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting in Washington DC in April.

“Fully aware of the daunting tasks this pandemic poses on the Government of Sierra Leone, the Network stands in solidarity with all those who have lost their loved ones to this cholera outbreak.To this end, we will continue monitoring progress and will strive to ensure that the government takes the necessary action to put an end to the current crisis.

With water among the MDG targets achieved, sanitation is still lagging far behind and we urge government and all partners to scale-up support for this very important but often neglected sector. “

According to the health ministry, out of eight of the country’s 12 districts which are affected by the outbreak, the western area which includes the capital Freetown, has been worst hit with 63 deaths.

Other badly affected districts are Port Loko in the north of the country, where 43 people have died and Moyama in the south where 35 people have died.

The small west African nation of six million people has one of the worlds worst health systems, with only one doctor per 34 744 people, according to United Nations figures.

Health ministry spokesperson Abass Kamara rejected criticism from the public that government was doing little to stem the tide of the outbreak.

“A series of robust resource mobilisation including the setting up of dozens of cholera treatment units in affected areas have been undertaken”, he said.

WASH-NET’s mission is to contribute to the development of Sierra-Leone by supporting the poor and marginalised groups to access safe water, improved sanitation and hygiene as a human right, engage government and other stakeholders to ensure that these services are delivered effectively to all.


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