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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 21:24 EDT

Guinea-Bissau Experiencing Spreading Cholera Epidemic

October 24, 2008

United Nations agencies said on Friday that a dangerous cholera epidemic is spreading quickly in Guinea-Bissau, where campaigning for an upcoming election could put even more people at risk.

So far this year, some 12,225 people in the West African state have caught cholera and 201 have died, raising fears among aid workers that the water-borne disease could resurge on the devastating scale seen in 2005.

More than 1,000 people were getting infected each month in Guinea-Bissau, with the capital Bissau worst hit, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Cholera can spread through contaminated water used for drinking or preparing food and aid workers fear that large gatherings of people ahead of next month’s election may intensify the transmission of the disease.

UNICEF released a statement saying: “With the start of the electoral campaign for the legislative elections that will take place on November 16th there are concerns of (a) new increase in cases, as people gather in large numbers and travel in absence of adequate hygiene conditions.”

Three years ago, Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, suffered a large-scale cholera epidemic that made 25,000 people ill and killed more than 400.

U.N. officials said that while neighboring countries including Senegal, Mali, Benin and Niger have recently seen cholera rates decline, the disease remains problematic in Guinea-Bissau because of crumbling infrastructure and local rites.

UNICEF said noted in the capital Bissau, where water and sanitation systems are in dire need of investment, only one in five people have access to running water, and that is not drinkable.

A spokeswoman for UNICEF said local funeral rites, in which mourners drink the water used to bathe the deceased’s body, could also encourage the spread of cholera.

Cholera begins with acute diarrhea and can lead to kidney failure. And young children are especially vulnerable to the dehydrating disease.

Image Caption: Scanning electron microscope image of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which infect the digestive system. Source Wikipedia