Kenya confirms 44 cases of cholera as WHO warns of waterborne diseases 

Health situation regarding possible or impending waterborne disease outbreaks could be worse across East Africa region

Kenya has confirmed 44 cases of deadly cholera, attributed to the widespread flooding that has so far claimed over 270 lives and prompted the closure of some health facilities, according to officials.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) said the long rains have destroyed several sanitation facilities, contaminated water sources with fecal matter and filled latrines with floodwater.

In a statement confirming the cases, the ministry issued an advisory to the public on how to effectively safeguard themselves against cholera and diarrhoeal diseases amid the outbreak.

“The State Department of Public Health and Professional Standards wishes to provide an update on the current situation of waterborne diseases, particularly the cholera outbreak in the country. Despite our control efforts, the ongoing heavy rains and flooding have led to a confirmed case of cholera in Tana River County and suspected diarrhoeal cases in Marsabit County,” the statement read in parts.

WHO advised Kenyans to be on high alert, as the country faces a looming threat of waterborne and foodborne diseases due to the rise in consumption of contaminated food and water.

Possible malaria outbreaks, too, can’t be ruled out, especially in notorious hotspots, following the increase in breeding sites.

“There is a likelihood for increased illnesses associated with contaminated food in Kenya. WHO will continue to support the health emergency response and remain vigilant for disease outbreaks that can easily spread if not quickly contained,” said Abdourahmane Diallo, WHO representative in Kenya.

The ministry, WHO and other health stakeholders have asked citizens to adhere to preventive measures, such as proper handwashing with soap and clean running water, to protect themselves. Kenyans have also been urged to avoid consumption of contaminated water, practice food safety and safe faecal disposal by avoiding open defecation. The wider East Africa region has remained a cholera outbreak hotspot due to poor water supply, sanitation and pollution, according to the United Nations Water Development Report of 2023

Thus, there are fears that limited clean water and inadequate sanitation facilities are likely to worsen the situation in the 192 overcrowded rescue camps set up by the government. 

Children traumatised, psychosocial wellbeing affected

Besides the waterborne diseases, children’s psychosocial wellbeing has also been acutely affected, with school reopening suspended in some areas in Kenya. This is largely due to damage or flooding of some school infrastructure, loss of family members, their friends and play areas. Experts are afraid this might lead to an increase in the risk of school dropouts, child labour, teenage pregnancies or early marriages, especially in rural outposts.

“Heavy rains and floods have submerged or destroyed at least 62 primary schools in Kenya, leaving thousands of children with nowhere to learn when schools reopen next week and raising the risk of waterborne diseases,” said Save the Children International-Kenya in a statement.

Following the reported outbreak of cholera and possible cases of other diarrhoeal diseases like typhoid in Tana River and Marsabit counties, there are fears this number could rapidly rise as children resume school.

“The impact of the floods on children is disastrous and threatens their health and basic rights. We are working around the clock to deliver lifesaving interventions such as cash transfers to affected households in Nairobi and Garissa Counties and are calling for support from the private sector, development partners and well-wishers to scale up our response,” said Mohamed Abdiladif, Save the Children’s acting country director for Kenya. 

Multiple status reports indicated that several sanitation facilities, including over 20,000 pit latrines / toilets, are either sunken or severely damaged by raging floodwaters in Kenyan schools, posing serious health risks to over two million children.

“In case school reopens at any moment, over 1,031 learners at our school will have nowhere to relieve themselves. Our ablution blocks with over 20 toilets collapsed and sunk due to heavy rains in the past week,” said Gloria Waithera, principal of Ruiru Girls’ Secondary School in Kiambu County, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Interventions to reduce impact

Following the widespread destruction of infrastructure or sanitation facilities at learning institutions, the possibility of schools reopening for the second term remains doubtful. The government has set aside Sh1 billion for countrywide reconstruction and repair of schools damaged by floods.

Besides providing education kits to support back-to-school efforts, Save the Children International-Kenya has provided cash transfers, distributing hygiene kits to young girls of reproductive age and their mothers as well as household kits and water treatment kits to affected families. 

In response to health hazards, the Kenya government has mounted a multi-sectoral emergency response led by the Kenya Disaster Emergency Operations Centre in the capital, Nairobi. The centre gathers information from the 33 affected counties for analysis and decision-making. At the National Public Health Emergency Operations Centre, staff monitor and lead the health situation and response, supported by WHO and other partners such as the Kenya Red Cross Society and African Medical and Research Foundation. 

If the Kenyan case study is anything to go by, the health situation regarding possible or impending waterborne disease outbreaks could be worse across the entire East Africa region. Humanitarian agencies estimate that almost 1 million people are under threat as heavy rains continue to wreak havoc.

 In Tanzania, the second-worst-hit country in East Africa after Kenya, 210,000 people have been affected by floods, 250 have been injured, and 161 have lost their lives. Over 200,000 acres of farmland have been affected, and about 5,000 people are still hosted in temporary camps, according to the UN.

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