YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In the midst of the ongoing political crisis over the continued rule of President Joseph Kabila, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now experiencing its worst cholera outbreak in two decades.
The World Health Organization says at least 1,000 people have died since the epidemic broke out last July, and the crisis is getting worse.
“Since 25 November last year, there have been 803 cases with 32 deaths in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, which has more than ten million inhabitants,” said Jean Munongo, Caritas Congo National Coordinator of the Department for Health Promotion.
“In fact, since the beginning of last year, there have been 45,800 cases. The epidemic has affected 22 out of 26 provinces that make up the country, with a predominant presence in the major urban areas, such as – apart from Kinshasa – Uvira, Minova, Mokala, Bandundu, Bukavu, Goma, Manono and Kimpese. 211 of 515 health zones have been affected,” he told Crux in an email interview.
Torrential rainfall this month, causing mudslides and silting, have worsened the crisis, especially in Kinshasa, which has limited health and hygiene facilities.
Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré is the Africa regional director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Cholera is always linked to lack of hygiene, lack of sanitation, lack of clean water, and when there is a rainy season adding to those situations, you have the needed mix for the explosion of cholera,” he told Devex Newswire.
Due to lack of medicine, more are dying than expected from the disease, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration.
Caritas Congo is working to promote changes in behavior, especially dealing with communal and personal hygiene, to help stem the spread of the water-borne disease.
As the disease spreads, so too are humanitarian organizations rushing in to help. Munongo told Crux suspected cases are referred to specialized treatment centers that have been set up specifically for the purpose.
About half of Congo’s population belong to the Catholic Church, and many consider it the only truly national institution in the country.
The Church provides much of the infrastructure in the country for education, welfare, and health services.
“Some dioceses have gone so far as to contribute in terms of drug supplies such as antibiotics and rehydration treatments…Others, however, such as the diocese of Kisangani, have seized the opportunity of the Healthy Villages and Schools program, which improves access to schools by strengthening hygiene measures,” he said.
The government-sponsored program seeks to empower villagers to improve and maintain their own sanitation systems and to adopt healthy hygiene practices.
François Mbutshitshi, Head of the Emergency and Social Protection Program of Caritas, told the Fides news agency that the charity works collaboratively with other relief agencies “to know how to provide an answer.”
“This requires disinfecting water with chlorine. It is necessary to disinfect the environment affected by the epidemic, the affected people must be identified, and the medical service must take care of the patients already affected.”
Didier Bompangue, coordinator of the National Program for the Elimination of Cholera, said there is need for collaboration.
“The health system manages only a small part of the problem. The problem of cholera is a multisectoral problem. It is really time for REGIDESO [the society responsible for the distribution of drinking water], civil hygiene and finance to come together to face this challenge,” he told Fides.
Emmanuel Mbuna Badjonga serves as the national coordinator for Caritas Congo’s Department for the Promotion of Solidarity and Sharing.
He told Crux that the charity was giving “food support to families who have lost food stocks; cash support to revive income-generating activities to ensure the survival of the most affected households as well as providing bedding, clothing, essential household items, school bags and basic supplies for students.”
The spread of the disease is worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country that is suffering from the political upheaval caused when Kabila refused to step down following the end of his presidential term on December 16, 2016.
An accord brokered by the country’s Catholic bishops required that fresh elections be organized by the end of 2017 in which Kabila would not take part, but that date came and went with no election, and the president still in office.
Last year, ongoing conflicts between the government and various militias forced at least 1.7 million people from their homes.
The Lay Coordination Committee of the Catholic Church in the Congo has been organizing protests across the country to press for Kabila’s resignation. On January 21, lay-led demonstrations – in which several priests and members of religious orders took part – pressed for Kabila’s resignation.
The government responded with force, leaving several people dead, and leading to the condemnation of the international community and the local Catholic Church.
At the end of the general audience on Jan. 24, Pope Francis spoke out against the violence.
“Unfortunately, troubling news continues to come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Therefore, I renew my call for everyone to commit to avoiding all forms of violence,” he said.
“On her part, the Church wants nothing other than to contribute to the peace and to the common good of society.”