Lebanon has recorded its first case of cholera since 1993, the crisis-hit country’s health ministry announced, as neighbouring war-torn Syria is struggling to contain an outbreak of the waterborne disease that has spread across the country during the past month.
Lebanon began a downward spiral in late 2019 that has plunged three-quarters of its population into poverty. Rampant power cuts, water shortages, and skyrocketing inflation have deteriorated living conditions for millions.
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Caretaker Health Minister Firas Abiad said on Thursday that the case was recorded on Wednesday in the impoverished, predominantly rural northern Lebanese region of Akkar and that the patient, a Syrian national, was receiving treatment and in stable condition.
According to the World Health Organization, a cholera infection is caused by consuming food or water infected with the Vibrio cholerae bacteria, and while most cases are mild to moderate, not treating the illness could lead to death.
Impoverished families in Lebanon often ration water and are unable to afford private water tanks for drinking and domestic use.
Abiad has met authorities and international organisations following the confirmed case to discuss ways to prevent a possible outbreak.
He said that the case is likely the result of the outbreak in Syria crossing the porous border between the countries.
Richard Brennan, regional emergency director of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, confirmed that the organisation has been in talks with authorities in Lebanon and other countries bordering Syria to bring in the necessary supplies to respond to possible cases in the country.
“Cross-border spread is a concern, we’re taking significant precautions,” Brennan said. “Protecting the most vulnerable will be absolutely vital.”
Brennan added that vaccines are in short supply relative to global demand.
In neighbouring Syria, the outbreak has claimed dozens of lives and is posing a danger across the front lines of the country’s 11-year-long war, stirring fears in crowded camps for the displaced who lack running water or sewage systems.
The UN and Syria’s health ministry have said the source of the outbreak is likely linked to people drinking unsafe water from the Euphrates River and using contaminated water to irrigate crops, resulting in food contamination.
Syria’s health services have suffered heavily from its years-long war, while much of the country is short on supplies to sanitise water.
Syrian health officials – as of Wednesday – have documented at least 594 cases of cholera and 39 deaths.
Meanwhile, in the rebel-held northwest of the country, health authorities documented 605 suspected cases, dozens of confirmed cases, and at least one death.
Lebanon’s water infrastructure is also decrepit, and the healthcare system has been hit hard by a three-year financial crisis and the August 2020 Beirut port blast that destroyed critical medical infrastructure in the capital.
Despite humanitarian aid from donor countries, Abiad said the sector would struggle to cope with a large-scale outbreak.
“We have a very clear signal that the Lebanese healthcare system needs support to strengthen [it],” he said. “Otherwise … it won’t be able to hold.”