Democratic Republic of Congo

Worsened by Poor Water Infrastructure, New DRC Cholera Outbreak Claims Mostly Children

In a village north of Goma, health organizations are struggling to counter a cholera epidemic brought on by an extended dry season and lack of rainfall. Their efforts – including clean water deliveries and community education – have made an impact, but residents say future outbreaks are inevitable unless the government addresses the village’s lack of water infrastructure.

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Worsened by Poor Water Infrastructure, New DRC Cholera Outbreak Claims Mostly Children

Esther Nsapu, GPJ DRC

Ten to 15 people per day are admitted to a cholera quarantine within the Majengo neighborhood of Goma. So far, most of the dead have been children under 10.

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KANYARUCHINYA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In the absence of rain, a cholera outbreak has already claimed 17 lives here.

The village of Kanyaruchinya lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province. The majority of the 2,600 households in the village lack running water. Exacerbated by a prolonged dry season and drought-like conditions, a cholera epidemic that began in early July has already claimed the lives of 17 people, mostly children under 10. More than 1,800 cases have been reported.

Cécile Sinunvayo lost her six-year-old daughter to the disease on July 10.

Like many parents here, she did not immediately take her daughter to the doctor when she showed signs of illness but instead purchased medication from a local pharmacy to treat what she thought was the root issue. (See our story on self-medication in DRC here.)

“I rushed my daughter to a nearby health center with the help of my neighbors, but she couldn’t survive. It was too late to save her,” says Sinunvayo, a farmer with five other children. “She died in my arms.”

In Kanyaruchinya, running water is a pipe dream for most. Locals rely on collected rain water for cooking, showering, dish washing and drinking. But a prolonged dry season has caused a spike in cholera infections, which led health officials to create a cholera quarantine within the Majengo neighborhood of Goma in July. Authorities report that the number of new cases in the quarantine zone is decreasing thanks to twice-weekly water deliveries by MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the region. But MONUSCO officials say that water delivery is not part of their duties, so future deliveries are not guaranteed.

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Esther Nsapu, GPJ DRC

Cécile Sinunvayo’s six-year-old daughter died on July 10 after contracting cholera.

Authorities say educating the population will help solve the problem, but others warn that as soon as the MONUSCO deliveries stop, the epidemic will spike again.

Since July 5, 3,312 cases of cholera have been reported in Goma and Kanyaruchinya. Among others, UNICEF, USAID, Doctors Without Borders and the vice governor of the North Kivu province, Feller Lutahichirwa, are working to educate the community on ways to prevent cholera in the absence of long-term water solutions.

Dr. Marius Kasereka Musubao, of the Centre de Sante Majengo, the local health center where the quarantine is located, says children are at increased risk.

“Cholera has wreaked havoc on the lives of many children under 10 years old that we have received in the quarantined area in our center,” he says. “On average, 10 to 15 people are received every day from Kanyaruchinya, and other health centers lack resources to treat the epidemic.”

Musubao says this outbreak was caused by drought-like conditions that forced many to use or consume untreated water. In response, he says, they set up the quarantine to isolate patients and prevent further spread of the disease.

“The quarantine area was set up out of the desire to intensify the assault on the epidemic by putting the patients into isolation,” he says.

“We’ve been using rainwater for more than 20 years,” he says. “There is no single water tap in the whole village. We rely on rain as our source of water, and when it rains, we collect large amounts of water from the roofs of our houses.”

He says without modern toilets, most households dig holes in the ground and share them with other families, making the hygiene situation even more precarious.

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Esther Nsapu, GPJ DRC

MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the region, delivers 20,000 liters (5,280 gallons) of fresh water to the Kanyaruchinya village twice a week. A decrease in reported cases in recent weeks can be attributed to these deliveries, but residents worry the disease will spike again if they stop.

Lutahichirwa, the vice governor of the province, says the outbreak is waning thanks to community education on how to prevent the disease, like keeping toilets clean and following the instructions of health workers to bury bodies quickly.

“The success of the battle against the epidemic is in sight,” he says.

But Joseph Openge, protocol officer with MONUSCO, says it’s the twice-weekly MONUSCO deliveries of at least 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of clean water that are responsible for the decrease in reported cases over the last few weeks.

Openge says MONUSCO has the logistical means to assist the village, but he cannot say how long the deliveries will continue.

Sinunvayo says it’s time the Congolese government address the lack of water infrastructure to prevent the deaths of more children, like her daughter. Her neighbor, Chichi Mutindi, says that if the government fails to develop a solution to the problem, more people will die.

“It’s our children’s turn today, but for our village adults, perhaps our turn will be tomorrow,” he says.

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.