FREETOWN — Following three days of torrential rain, a hillside collapsed in the town of Regent, Sierra Leone on August 14, triggering mudslides that killed over 500 people and swept away countless homes, and the spread of waterborne diseases. Among the dead are at least 100 children, and an estimated 600 people are still missing. An additional 3,000 are predicted to be homeless.
The Town of Regent
Regent, which sits on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown, has faced severe flooding since the mudslides commenced. The city is home to one million people, many of whom live on steep hillsides in crowded areas, often in unprotected homes. During the summer rainy season, these settlements are vulnerable to inundation.
The flooding in Regent and nearby communities provide ripe conditions for the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Various humanitarian organizations are making it their goal to keep these diseases from spreading and to treat those who may have already contracted infection.
Global health group Gavi Alliance is one such organization, and is using preemptive methods to arm those affected by flooding against waterborne diseases. Together with the Government of Sierra Leone, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Kingdom Government, the World Health Organization, and other groups, Gavi will provide those living in areas ravaged by the mudslide and subsequent flooding with half a million cholera vaccines.
The vaccines will be administered in two rounds in September and will be available free-of-cost.
Cholera spreads quickly after severe flooding and is sometimes fatal, making fast-acting solutions necessary for containment. Sierra Leone has dealt with cholera outbreaks before, and faced a devastating flare-up in 2012 which killed 392 people and infected thousands.
To avoid similar effects, Gavi and its partner organizations hope to stop cholera in its tracks.
“Access to safe water and sanitation is limited, and the public health system, still recovering after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, is stretched,” said Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley. “These life saving vaccines, alongside urgent support to improve safe water and sanitation, have the potential to prevent a cholera outbreak before it has the chance to bring more misery to a country that has already suffered enough.”
Doctors Without Borders has also been working to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases in Sierra Leone by ensuring people have access to clean water and equipping three in-need communities with new water distribution sites.
The organization is additionally monitoring signs of waterborne disease outbreaks in the affected areas, and will provide medical assistance if needed.
While men, women and children throughout Sierra Leone are all at risk of contracting diseases like cholera and typhoid, people with HIV are particularly susceptible to waterborne illnesses, especially when their immune systems are weakened. What’s more, HIV patients are especially vulnerable in times of crises due to disruption of treatment and low prioritization of their needs, among other factors.
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) is pioneering efforts to protect people living with HIV from illnesses that commonly and virulently circulate in flooded areas, ensuring that they continue receiving treatment and other forms of assistance in the face of emergency.
With its eyes on the long term, UNAIDS will also work with HIV-affected people to restore the lives and homes that were destroyed by the mudslide and flooding.
Protecting the displaced and grieving people of Sierra Leone from disease is incredibly important in the face of destruction and tragedy. While it is not always possible to prevent against mudslides and other natural disasters, it is possible to mitigate their effects and save lives in the process. Through their health initiatives in Sierra Leone, Gavi, Doctors Without Borders, and UNAIDS are doing just that.
– Sabine Poux