Cholera Threatens World’s Largest Refugee Camp

BY Talea Miller  November 17, 2011 at 5:25 PM EDT

Somali boys fetch water from a puddle in the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.

The heavy rains soaking the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya — the largest in the world — would normally mean sweet relief for the many refugees who fled drought and famine conditions in Somalia.

During the rainy season the brutal heat subsides, green sprouts appear in the desert, and the few livestock in the camp can finally graze, said Kassie Mcilvaine the director of refugee operations for CARE, who is working in Dadaab.

But this year the rains have also caused an uptick in cholera, a potentially deadly disease caused by a bacteria that spreads through contaminated water.

“[The rain] is a joy and blessing because it brings growth and greenery, but it does not help with hygiene conditions,” Mcilvaine said.

One person has died from cholera, and 60 are sick in the camp, the U.N. High Commission on refugees reported this week. In a camp of 460,000 people, with new arrivals every day, an infectious disease like cholera can spread quickly. The outbreak is believed to have started among new arrivals to the camp and was exacerbated by the rains.

“Rains and flooding had affected the trucking of water to parts of the camps, and we fear some refugees resorted to using unsafe water from flooded areas,” Andrej Mahecic, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told reporters.

About 10 percent of the latrines in the camp have collapsed as well, Mcilvaine said. Relief workers are scrambling to make repairs and add extra chlorine to the water sources in the camp to kill the bacteria that causes cholera. Camp organizers are getting the world out about proper sanitation and distributing soap with food rations.

The U.N. is watching the situation closely and has rehydration treatment ready should the number of cases increase. The fact that the camp has been around so long, and has a strong infrastructure for both water provision and health services should help prevention and treatment efforts, Mcilvaine said.

But with so many people living in close quarters the situation could evolve quickly.

“They are living side by side, acre after acre, in rows,” she said. “It’s very much a large urban sprawl in the middle of the desert.”

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