UNICEF, the UN agency for children, has some heart-breaking information about the devastating impacts of recent torrential rains and floods at Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s poorest nations.

A giant mudslide occurred in Freetown on August 14, killing at least 500 people. More than 600 people are missing and those who know the affected communities estimate that the real number of victims could be much more.

A main UNICEF priority is to prevent the spread of diarrhea causing diseases, especially cholera which is endemic in Sierra Leone.

Malaria is also a concern since it is among the biggest killers of young children and the current rainy season is the annual high point for malaria deaths.

Malaria contributes to an estimated twenty per cent of child mortality, and is the cause of nearly four in ten hospital consultations country-wide.

Impacts on children of cholera and malaria are severe in Sierra Leone where child survival indicators are already among the worst in the world. Some 28.8 per cent of children under age 5 are stunted, 12.9 per cent are underweight and 4.7 percent are wasted.

It also has the world’s highest maternal mortality and the world’s 5th highest child mortality rate.

More than 3,000 people were left homeless and hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed by the mudslides. The disaster was worsened by Freetown’s situation at or below sea level, and poor infrastructure and drainage systems.

In such emergency situations, cholera is a pitiless killer. There are well known and inexpensive remedies but they must be delivered quickly to prevent epidemics.

The concern for Sierra Leone is underlined by the speed at which cholera spread in Yemen and its long persistence in Haiti.

For instance, in Yemen cholera began to spread in April 2017 and has already killed more than 2,000 people.

The toll of infections could rise to 600,000, making it one of the largest outbreaks since records started in 1949.

Reasons include the intense destruction caused by a war that shows no signs of relenting after two years. The warring parties are blocking transportation routes and delivery of humanitarian aid, causing severe food shortages and almost total breakdown of sanitation.

Poor sanitary conditions are the major generator of cholera outbreaks anywhere. In just three months, more people in Yemen have contracted cholera than any country has suffered in a single year since modern records began.

The previous annual cholera record was in Haiti in 2011, when 340,311 cases were registered within three years of a massive earthquake on January 12, 2010.

By August 2015, more than 700,000 Haitians had become ill with cholera and the death toll had climbed to 9,000.

UNICEF is providing medicines, tents and materials such as gloves, masks and body bags to Sierra Leone to prevent infections, as it did to the other countries. It is also providing safe drinking water and emergency sanitation work.

Brij Khindaria, Foreign Affairs Columnist
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