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UNICEF collaborates with partners to fight cholera outbreak in Nigeria

Demonstration of how to use water purifying tablets
© UNICEF Nigeria/2010/Kaalu
Aishatu Zubair (in blue veil) watches a Water Quality Control Officer at the Bauchi State Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency demonstrate the use of water purification tablets in Gudum Community.

By Samuel Kaalu

BAUCHI, Nigeria, 16 September 2010 – “It’s not in our culture to count the dead, but we have lost many of our people to the epidemic and quite a number were hospitalized,” says Aishatu Zubair, 30, a mother of six who lives in Gudum.

Gudum Community is located less than 10 kilometers from Bauchi town, the capital of Bauchi State, north-east Nigeria. Despite its nearness to the state capital where safe water sources are more commonly available, the main sources of water for this community with an estimated 150,000 people comprise hand-dug, open wells and streams. Gudum community has therefore been hard hit by the deadly cholera epidemic that had broken out in most states in northern Nigeria, killing 352 since it was reported in June this year, according to Nigeria’s Ministry of Health.

As part of its support to contain the epidemic, UNICEF developed messages in the form of jingles and spot announcements, on cholera prevention which are being aired regularly on radio stations in Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa and Yobe States, the most affected states. The messages on hand washing, open defecation, thorough washing of fruits/vegetables before eating, boiling of drinking water, and case reporting are translated into local languages of Hausa and Fulfulde.

“I learnt while listening to radio that by boiling your water before drinking, you can protect yourself and family members from contracting the disease. We also hear on radio that we should wash our hands before eating; when we visit the toilet; and before preparing meals for our families,” says Aishatu.  “We have received sachets of Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) from health workers who tell us these are from UNICEF,” she adds, while watching Adamu Dogauda, Water Quality Control Officer from the Bauchi State Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASSA) demonstrate the use of water purifying tablets donated by UNICEF.

Cholera is caused by consuming contaminated water and food, and often spreads as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene. According to Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, who spoke at a press conference on the epidemic, the cholera epidemic in Nigeria is caused by poor hygiene and sanitation, including open defecation, and surface water contamination in most of the affected states.

“Cholera is a deadly disease that kills quickly but is easy to prevent, if one can imbibe and practice simple life-saving behaviours like boiling water before drinking; hand washing; and personal and environmental hygiene,” said UNICEF Nigeria Representative, Dr. Suomi Sakai.

UNICEF and directors of disease control; emergency preparedness response directors and managers of rural water and sanitation agencies in the cholera prone zone have put in place guidelines that will be used for health and water sector response plans.

 “All these interventions complement medicines such as Ringer Lactate, doxycycline, metronidazole, Intravenous fluids, dextrose in saline and oral rehydration salts which UNICEF has provided the states with since the outbreak of the cholera epidemic,” says Ms Edele Thebaud, Chief of UNICEF Bauchi Field Office, northeast Nigeria.

Ubaida Isah, 22, a radio presenter who repeatedly broadcast the cholera messages developed with the support of UNICEF to an estimated three million people in the north-east zone, believes that the messages have been helpful. “These messages are important in fighting the epidemic because people listen to the radio; if they put into practice what is in these messages, it will help reduce the spread of the disease,” she says.

While Cholera is caused by consuming contaminated water and food; and often spreads as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene, only 42 percent of Nigeria’s 150 million people have access to safe water sources, according to the Nigeria’s National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) 2008.

The UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme is accelerating efforts with rural water supply agencies across the north to improve the water supply situation in the states, including repair of non-functional hand pumps and faulty boreholes, and installation of safe water harvesting systems. With schools currently in session, UNICEF is working with States to organise hygiene and sanitation activities in schools to provide pupils with appropriate messages on prevention of the disease.

A long-term strategy for dealing with emergencies remains the best way forward. A comprehensive three-day emergency preparedness and response training of 70 stakeholders in  Health, Nutrition, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Education, Communication and the  Red Cross is planned.

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