While Sudanese officials deny cholera epidemic, doctors work round the clock

People ill with cholera get treatment in a hospital in White Nile State in Sudan (Photo: Twitter)
People ill with cholera get treatment in a hospital in White Nile State in Sudan (Photo: Twitter)

For the past few months, a deadly cholera epidemic has been sweeping through Sudan. Yet officials in Khartoum still haven’t officially recognised the epidemic or mobilised the resources to stem the spread of the disease. Faced with the government’s stark denial of the problem, doctors and volunteers are left to do the best they can as more and more people fall ill.

Starting in August 2016, several states in Sudan have seen an alarming increase in cholera rates. But it wasn’t until June 7, 2017 — ten months after these initial reports — that the health minister finally issued a statement. Even then, he failed to acknowledge the scope of the situation. In a press release, the minister stated that there had been 16,000 cases of “serious diarrhea” leading to more than 260 deaths across the country. Yet he didn’t mention the word cholera once.

When questioned by members of parliament, Health Minister Bahar Idris Abu Garda said that these cases of “serious diarrhea” didn’t fall under his jurisdiction and were, instead, an issue to be sorted out by the minister of water resources and irrigation.

Meanwhile doctors contacted by FRANCE 24 described overcrowded hospitals and increasing fears of medicine shortages, especially the antibiotics needed to treat severe cholera.

The US Embassy in Khartoum released a statement warning its citizens about “confirmed reports of cholera cases in some areas of Sudan, including the greater Khartoum metropolitan area, that have resulted in fatalities.”

Ali Bachir is a doctor in Omdurman, the second largest city in Sudan, which lies west of the Nile River opposite Khartoum. Together with some colleagues, he created a group that leads awareness campaigns in rural, isolated areas, and also gives life-saving treatement to patients. He says that far more people are affected by the disease than the authorities will admit. 

"We are trying to distribute oral rehydration kits and antibiotics”

There is total silence in the media about this epidemic, even though it has spread to ten of the country’s 18 states. Just between June 1 and 11, we registered 14,600 cases, 890 of which were fatal. [Editor’s note: FRANCE 24 was unable to verify these numbers from an independent source.]

This map, sent by our Observer Ali Bachir, shows the Sudanese states affected by the cholera epidemic: White Nile, Red Sea, Al Jazirah, Khartoum, North Kurdufan, South Kurdufan, Sannar, Nile, Al Qadarif and Ash-Shamaliyah (or Northern state).

There are many factors that have contributed to the spread of this disease. The water from the Nile isn’t cleaned and disinfected before going into the water distribution system. And because of a lack of knowledge about health and sanitation, people living in rural areas don’t purify and disinfect the water that they draw from wells. There is also the problem of dirty and overcrowded refugee camps, where there are huge numbers of flies. All of these factors contribute to the spread of this disease.

This animated video, which was widely shared on Twitter, teaches people how to make rehydration salts at home to treat an ill family member.

I am working with my colleagues as well as local activists to distribute medicine in different regions, especially kits with oral rehydration salts and antibiotics.

This photo shows a quarantine centre in the White Nile region.

Several doctors told FRANCE 24 that the White Nile region was hardest hit by the epidemic. An estimated 200 new cases are documented there each day.

Hamed al-Hamdani is a student who volunteered to help cholera victims in the region.

"We turned schools into quarantine centres"

In the White Nile state, we transformed five primary schools into quarantine centres. We go there regularly to distribute medicine and chlorine to disinfect the water.

A volunteer explains to a group of women various methods of preventing the spread of cholera at a health and hygiene workshop in Kotsi, a town in White Nile state. Photo shared by our Observer.

We also organise workshops in markets and public squares in the villages. Many women participate. We explain to them what to do if a family member shows symptoms of cholera and emphasise how important it is to wash your hands with soap and to disinfect water before drinking it.

Volunteers distribute jerrycans filled with chlorine in small villages and quarantine centres. Photo shared by our Observer.

We’ve also asked young people to join together to clean up all the garbage in the streets because it is one of the major causes of the spread of the disease. We’ve reached out to imams, village elders and women to ask them to share this health and sanitation information with everyone they can.

We are also calling on the government to officially recognise the epidemic and to bring in medicine urgently.

A hospital in Kosti, a town in White Nile..

Since President Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 on accusations of war crimes carried out in Darfur, many humanitarian organisations are no longer allowed to carry out their work in Sudan (including, among others, Doctors Without Borders, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam International and Save the Children).