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Battling water-borne diseases in cyclone-affected West Bengal

© UNICEF/2009/Nair
Camps have been set up in cyclone-affected Kolkata to treat diarrhoea and waterborne diseases caused by lack of proper sanitation.

By Dr. Jorge G. Caravotta

SUNDERBANS, India, 7 August 2009 –  When Cyclone Alia hit the Bay of Bengal at midnight on 26 May, more than 80 per cent of the fragile homes in the area were totally destroyed. The storm broke through the century-old embankments flooding rice paddies, devastating crops and forcing families to seek shelter at higher ground.

“We ran, taking all our most essential things,” said a villager who fled with his family when the storm hit. “We were very afraid and we dropped most of the things to keep our hands free to take our children who were getting overpowered by the wind.

“It was terrible. In just 15 minutes everything was flooded. Water was up to our necks.”

With a lack of human resources and guidelines for coping, the natural disaster completely overwhelmed local health facilities. Disease surveillance was weak at facilities and in medical camps, leading to difficulties in the rapid identification of disease outbreaks.

A life-threatening situation

Since the cyclone hit, 100,000 diarrheoal cases resulting in 31 deaths, have been reported by the government.

Severe watery diarrhoea with vomiting and cramps is life threatening. If not treated, patients can lose up to one litre of water per hour. Patients with severe dehydration can die as quickly as 6 hours from the onset of symptoms.

Overstretched health facilities often fail to meet sanitation conditions to create a safe and clean environment for the wellbeing of patients, relatives and health personnel. A lack of hygiene and sanitation makes people more susceptible to diarrhoeal diseases and needs to be tackled to decrease infection.

Helping the most vulnerable

Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

“Now, children under five are affected by cholera, making the fight even more difficult,” said Director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) Dr. G.B Nair.

About 900 medical and paramedical personnel have been trained on diarrhoea management guidelines and disinfection procedures, according to UNICEF India Health Specialist Kaninika Mitra.

UNICEF is partnering with the National Rural Health Mission, NICED and the Integrated Disease Surveillance Program to strengthen antibiotic protocols, epidemiological surveillance and diarrhoea control.

Sustainable efforts

UNICEF and NICED have trained fifty doctors from the Kolkata Medical College in case management, disinfection guidelines and preparation of safe and clean water. At present, 300 government medical teams are operational in the field to work at health facilities and with communities.

More than 50 engineers from the Public Health Engineering Department have been oriented on the proper disinfection of tube-wells, according to UNICEF Water and Sanitation Specialist Shyam Dave. Bleaching powder also is being distributed to affected communities to prevent the spread of diarrhoea.

“We need to make sustainable efforts at community and facility levels to support the children and woman of the river island communities in their fight against cholera and acute diarrhoeal diseases,” said UNICEF India Health Chief Dr. Henri van den Hombergh. “It is a fight that can be won.”



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