MATADI – “Not a single case of cholera has been reported these past three weeks..” Dr. Etienne Biya, the doctor in charge of epidemics in the Bas-Congo province, is cautious in her suddenly optimistic diagnosis.
Jean Jacques Diyabanza, the Provincial Health Inspection spokesman, adds that “the epidemic is coming to an end. Most cholera treatment centers are closing because of a lack of patients.”
Indeed all signs point in a positive direction in Congo after cholera has killed more than 1,100 people this year in West Africa. More than 55,289 cases have been reported in 15 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.
Huge efforts were made to inform the Congolese population about the outbreak in July, especially in the port city of Matadi where most cases were reported. Tribal and religious chiefs, teachers and journalists took part in meetings for the campaign against the disease.
Their mission was simply to keep reminding people to follow elementary hygiene rules: washing one’s hands with soap, washing food, boiling water, cooking food at high temperatures. They also advised people not to defecate in the open, and to avoid all contact with the body, vomit or feces of infected individuals.
“The entire community got involved in the campaign to raise public awareness and get people to follow the experts’ recommendations,” notes Jean Jacques Diyabanza.
Disinfecting the river
Yet all these measures would have failed if the root of problem had not been tackled. The epicenter of the cholera outbreak was identified by the Ministry of Health as the Mpozo River, which runs through part of Matadi, as well as the towns of Nzanza and Muzi. The river is used by people from the towns’ poorer neighborhoods.
“The neighborhoods along the river face crucial water supply issues and generally lack toilets: two major factors that help cholera spread,” says one of the experts who took part in the awareness campaign.
With more than 1000 people infected by cholera since the beginning of the year, “the Bas-Congo region has registered more cholera cases than any other province in the country. And the problem lies with the Mpozo River. That’s where the bacterium resides,” says Dr. Benoit Kebela, head of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at the Ministry of Health.
“Since cholera spreads through contaminated food and water,” he adds, “we had to sanitize the river’s spring water with chlorine.” While campaigners were informing people about basic hygiene rules, a team of “chlorinators” from the Provincial Health Inspection sanitized the springs that feed the river.
The Mpozo, a major tributary to the Congo River, is crucial to many families in Matadi. Farmers use it to irrigate their fields, where they grow the vegetables sold at the city’s markets.
The problem is that the river feeds cesspools and septic tanks upstream, while the same water is used downstream by others. They have been told to stop using the water.
John Kibebo, a coordinator at a center for sanitization and environmental issues has begun talks with local authorities to bring portable toilets to poor neighborhoods.