Cholera is a disease that should not result in fatalities, according to Muriel Mafico, the Deputy Representative of UNICEF South Africa. Even though cholera can impact people of all ages, it is young children who are more susceptible to the disease, and this risk has risen. Mafico has stressed the urgency of taking prompt action to tackle this problem.

By Staff Reporter

The cholera epidemic has claimed the lives of fifteen people, including two children, in the heart-wrenching tragedy that has struck Hammanskraal.

The further emergence of cholera cases in other provinces, including Free State, has added to the growing concern and sense of urgency regarding the fight against the disease’s rapid spread.

The worsening outbreak in South Africa comes after the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a warning on May 19 about a global cholera catastrophe if immediate action is not taken.

“The current global cholera situation is unprecedented due to the alarming size of the outbreaks, geographic spread, and extraordinarily high rate of deaths,” said Jérôme Pfaffmann Zambruni, UNICEF’s global Public Health Emergency unit head in Geneva.

“This is a wake-up call. The longer we go without the needed support to control and prevent cholera, the more the disease spreads, and the more the funding needs grow,” Pfaffmann added, referring to the investment needed in water and sanitation infrastructure and hygiene promotion to prevent and slow cholera outbreaks.

Cholera is a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water and causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration. Left untreated, cholera can be fatal in a matter of hours. Most people exposed to cholera never know they’ve been infected but they shed cholera bacteria in their stool for seven to 14 days and can infect others through contaminated water.

“This is a disease that nobody should die from,” said Muriel Mafico, UNICEF South Africa Deputy Representative. “When cholera hits anyone can be affected but young children are often the most vulnerable and more children are now at risk without urgent action,” added Mafico.

Underinvestment in water, sanitation, and health systems is a risk indicator for cholera, with 97 per cent of global cholera cases over the decade, 2010-2021, occurring in countries with the world’s lowest water and sanitation services levels. Cholera disproportionately affects poor and vulnerable communities without access to basic services and where health systems are weakest.

The COVID-19 pandemic and response also highlighted the importance of improving water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities to prevent and slow disease spread. “The cholera outbreak reiterates the importance of ensuring access to safe water and sanitation systems and encouraging good hygiene practices among children, caregivers and communities to help protect them from cholera and other diseases,” said Mafico.

UNICEF South Africa and partners are working with and stand ready to further support the Department of Health, to provide the most effective response possible, including through UNICEF’s mandated areas of risk communication and community engagement, health and WASH-related work.

Parents and caregivers in affected areas should be on high alert for signs of severe watery diarrhoea, with vomiting, particularly in children, and seek urgent medical attention. Cholera can cause severe fluid loss of up to a litre per hour, and stools which are pale, milky in colour, and look like the water in which rice has been rinsed. 

Parents and caregivers can help themselves and their loved ones by:

  • Washing hands regularly using soap and water, especially after using the toilet, changing nappies or before eating.
  • Using safe water (disinfected, boiled or bottled) for drinking, and washing fruit and vegetables for cooking.
  • Cooking food thoroughly, keeping it covered, and eating immediately after cooking while still hot.
  • Continuing to breastfeed infants and young children, breastmilk is the most nutritious food for children and the best way to protect them from illness and disease.

The cholera outbreak comes at a time when cases of diphtheria, mumps and measles are also being recorded in South Africa, amid a backslide in childhood immunisation coverage. Parents and caregivers are advised to not only maintain good hygiene practices but also make sure that their children are up to date with their routine immunisations for protection from vaccine-preventable diseases.

The free National Health Hotline – 0800 029 999 – can be contacted 24 hours for further information for people who are concerned about or suspect cholera cases.

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