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UNICEF teams race to save children after diarrhoea outbreaks in Ethiopia and Kenya

UNICEF Image: Boy collects water from a pool in Ethiopia
© UNICEF/HQ06-0513/ Getachew
Medina Humed Ahmed, 10, collects water from a pool left by a recent flooding of the Awash River, in the Afar Region, Ethiopia.

By Andrew Heavens and Farah Dar

ADALE, Ethiopia, 1 August 2006 – Abdi Kafi, 4, lies crying in his mother’s arms, weak and listless after three weeks of recurrent diarrhoea.

In most Western countries, his condition would be easily improved with oral rehydration salts or a visit to the local clinic. In Abdi’s town of Adale, however, diarrhoea has become nothing less than a killer – in fact, one week later it took Abdi’s life.

According to local health officials, diarrhoea cases have risen sharply among the under-fives in the remote settlement of Somali region since the rain in early April.

“The rain has come and it has brought relief to many of the pastoralists in the region – their livestock now have some pasture,” said the head of UNICEF’s sub-office in Gode Gwenaël Rébillon.

A rise in waterborne diseases

“But we are now seeing a rise in waterborne diseases. It is a cruel irony that something as welcome as water can end up threatening the lives of young children,” Mr. Rébillon said.

The showers were indeed a welcome relief after more than three months of severe drought that spread beyond Ethiopia and hit Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea earlier this year.

Abdi’s mother Keim Khalif does not know where her son picked up the illness. He started showing symptoms when the wandering pastoralist family moved to Adale after the drought killed their entire herd of 40 goats and 60 sheep.

UNICEF Image: A boy carries jerry cans in Ethiopia
© UNICEF/HQ05-0693/ Heger
A boy carries jerry cans past debris and muddy water on his way to a water distribution point, in a camp for people displaced by the drought in the Oromia Region, Ethiopia.

Rising diarrhoea cases following the rain

Along with the rain, there were 68 reported cases of diarrhoea in May, compared to only 18 in March.

Community elder Bare Jama keeps a hand-written list of 32 youngsters who have died in the past two months, from a range of conditions including diarrhoea and malaria.

“The rains have come,” he said. “But many of the people are still weak. Now there are these health problems.”

Poor sanitation around the town’s two wells has been blamed for the increase in illnesses. Both were surrounded by trampled-down waste left by herds of thirsty livestock. Pools of water have also become potential breeding grounds for insects like mosquitoes that carry and transmit deadly malaria.

UNICEF Image: Boy drinks from small pool in North-Eastern Province, Kenya
© UNICEF/HQ06-0177/ Kamber
A boy drinks from a small pool that is the sole water source for the Bulla Maki settlement in North-Eastern Province, Kenya.

Responding to the crisis

Sixteen UNICEF-backed mobile health teams are currently racing across the Somali Region, taking their emergency drug kits and expertise to some of its most far-flung communities.

Earlier this year, they spent a lot of time screening youngsters in the region for malnutrition and other drought-related illnesses. Now that the rains have arrived, the mobile teams – each consisting three health officers in four-wheel-drive vehicles – are equipped with all they need to take on the new threat.

“They are designed to keep up with the region’s highly mobile population of pastoralists. If we can keep the funding flowing, they will be in the best position to keep up with the spread of these new conditions,” said Gwenaël Rébillon.

Children of Kenya also face the threat of diarrhoea

Neighbouring Kenya also experienced rising numbers of diarrhoea cases following the rain. In Mandera District, a diarrhoea outbreak claimed the lives of 13 children in the month of June. More than 2,000 cases of diarrhoea have also been reported in Mandera town. Health officials suspect the use of contaminated water from nearby pans is the major contributor to the outbreak.

In response to the new crisis, oral rehydration centres have been set up in affected areas. Communities are informed of the danger of using water that’s heavily contaminated by carcasses and other materials.

A committee for emergency planning and coordination has been formed, comprising the Office of the President, Ministry of Health (MOH), UNICEF, and other partners. UNICEF and MOH are also mobilizing resources to the affected districts, while providing outreach services to areas like Fino, Rhamu and Takabe.




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