UN says Burundi refugees cholera epidemic worsening

At least 3,000 cases of cholera have been reported in Tanzania since last week and the outbreak has claimed 31 lives.

Burundi refugees
Thousands of Burundian refugees have crossed into Tanzania during nearly a month of political unrest [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Kigoma, Tanzania – The cholera epidemic in the remote Tanzanian fishing village of Kagunga where about 50,000 refugees are still stranded on the shore of Lake Tanganyika is worsening, the UN refugee agency has said.

At least 3,000 cases of cholera have been reported since last week and the outbreak has claimed 31 lives to date.

The UNHCR said on Friday the cholera outbreak had become “a new, worrying, and growing additional complication” for the tens of thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Tanzania.

“At this rate, further cases can be expected over the next days and until the situation can be brought under control,” the agency said in a statement.

The influx of Burundian refugees into Tanzania has been steadily increasing during nearly a month of political unrest and a failed military coup in the East African state.

More than 300 cases of cholera were reported on Thursday across the Lake Tanganyika region and there are concerns the epidemic is yet to peak.

There is still no confirmation of the source of the epidemic, though there is some speculation that refugees carried it across the border, with cases of cholera already been reported in the southern Burundian town of Makamba.

But with the overcrowding and widespread unsanitary conditions in Kagunga, the UNHCR said it was likely the current epidemic was sourced by the lake itself.

Sanitation challenges

On Thursday, the WHO told Al Jazeera the lake was “most certainly” contaminated. Tens of thousands continue to consume water from the lake though the UNHCR together with Tanzanian authorities have arranged up to 8 litres of drinking water per person per day.

“While our priority is to get the refugees out of Kagunga because of the dire situation, we are still working on better access to safe water and promote hygiene there,” Celine Schmitt, UNHCR’s senior regional external relations officer, told Al Jazeera.

Tanzanian authorities also told Al Jazeera that there were moves to build more latrines, in an urgent bid to curb new infections. There were currently just 94 latrines servicing the entire refugee population, with 24 already full.

Burundi refugees flee to Tanzania

The UNHCR have supported the transfer of over 15,000 refugees from Kagunga to Nyagurusu near the town of Kasulu. The camp now has 35,000 Burundian refugees, according to the camp’s manager.

Meanwhile the UNHCR said it feared that the number of refugees could double in the next six months because of the continuing political crisis in Burundi.

“We are launching an appeal that aims to protect and assist up to 200,000 refugees in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC,” Schmitt said.

Two Tanzanians have ready died from cholera over the past week and authorities are mindful of the larger implications on the local community if the epidemic is not curbed.

Those suffering from cholera and acute diahorroea are being treated at a set of treatment centres operated by the International Rescue Committee.

The WHO declared cholera a level one emergency in the region on Wednesday, though officials said that case management and awareness could save lives.

“We have enough drugs and we are putting our resources into this and ensuring this does not spread”. Christopher Kamugusha, programme officer for WHO in Tanzania, said. 

“The situation can be managed with adequate amount of medication and swift action.” he added.

Follow Al Jazeera Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa 

Source: Al Jazeera