NAIROBI — Known for its vast savannahs teeming with diverse wildlife and rich culture, Kenya lies in East Africa on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Since the beginning of 2017, there has been an outbreak of cholera in Kenya, in both cities and rural areas.
According the World Health Organization (WHO), the current risk of cholera in Kenya is at high for the national and regional levels and remains at moderate at the global level. Kenya’s poor health infrastructure and lack of access to clean water are some of the most important reasons for this outbreak and past ones. In fact, Kenya experiences cyclical outbreaks every five to seven years.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal illness that can be fatal in mere hours if it is left untreated. The bacterial infection is caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. Due to its ability to rapidly spread, cholera continues to remain a serious threat to public health, especially in developing countries.
As of July 17, 2017, there have been 1,216 reported cases and 14 deaths due to cholera in Kenya in 2017. Some of the factors that may have led to this outbreak include a high population density, especially in cities, that allows for cholera to easily spread, a lack of access to appropriate sanitation and clean water and large numbers moving between countries.
Mass gatherings of people also played a role as the country was put on high alert after several incidents. In addition to a wedding in Karen, Kenya with five confirmed cases of cholera, there were 136 new cholera infections at the China Trade Fair in Nairobi as well as 146 infections after a Nairobi health conference.
Although some infected people do not manifest symptoms, their feces will contain bacteria for over a week after the initial infection, potentially infecting others. Most people will begin to show symptoms of infection between 12 hours and five days after ingesting the contaminated food or water. Symptoms of cholera have a wide range and may include anything between mild gastrointestinal discomfort to acute watery diarrhea that can kill because of severe dehydration.
The treatment for cholera is easily provided through oral rehydration salts that help replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Despite cholera being an easily treatable and preventable disease, the severe lack of public health staff and medical care available in Kenya prevent the country from curbing this outbreak. There have even been talks in the national government of cholera vaccines to be administered but nothing has materialized yet.
Thus far, to slow the spread of the Kenya cholera outbreak, the government has resorted to isolating the infected individuals in hospitals, shutting down street vendors, increasing surveillance for acute cholera cases, providing clean water and other supplies to low-resource areas and educating Kenyans on how to avoid cholera infection. A national task force to stop the outbreak has also been created.
Currently, the WHO is assisting the areas with the most infections in Kenya with disease surveillance and response coordination in case of further serious incidents, and it will continue to partner with groups offering healthcare and other services on the ground.
Even with the increased emphasis on stopping the outbreak of cholera in Kenya from worsening, Kenya continues to lack some of the most important requirements for preventing future cholera outbreak: basic sanitation infrastructure and practices throughout the country, food safety interventions and access to clean water. Until there are significant improvements in these areas as well as the readiness of health facilities to detect and contain cholera outbreaks, Kenya will continue to experience cyclical cholera outbreaks.
– Akhil Reddy