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04/27/2011

Life in the Time of Cholera

Korle Blu
Accra's Korle Blu hospital, where some of Ghana's cholera victims are being treated. Since September, over 7,000 people have contracted the illness, and over 80 have died. Photo by Angela Johnston. 

By Angela Johnston

It was a close call for Hannah Anum.

She says she arrived at Accra’s Korle Bu hospital unconscious. Now, she rests motionless on a bench with her head nested in her elbow. She and her two daughters got cholera from rice and stew she cooked herself.

“I was very weak and dizzy,” she says in a local language, Twi. “I heard people talk but I could not say anything to them . . . I knew I was near death.”

It’s a common story in Ghana, where more than 80 people have died from the bacterial disease since September, according to the Ghana Health Service. Efforts are underway to bring the epidemic to bay, but some are calling on Ghanaian authorities to do more to prevent outbreaks in the future.

Anum is resting in a wooden shelter built at the hospital to house new cholera cases, of which Korle Bu now sees about 20 each day. Some patients need up to 20 litres of fluid to recover from the severe diarrhea cholera brings on.

In a hospital examination room, medical resident Dr. Salamatu Nantogma says the clinic is coping by scheduling extra shifts and more nurses on duty.

“It’s really exhausting because you are on your feet, trying every case you see as an emergency,” she explains. “Every case you see is a potential death.”

Clinics like Korle Bu are the front lines in an epidemic that has affected more than 7,000 people in seven months. Heavy rains and flooding last year are partly to blame, but sanitation shortfalls like access to clean water and toilets compound the problem.

Today, different strategies are in place to reduce the number of cases.

City assemblies are padlocking vendors operating in unhygienic conditions, such as selling food along open gutters. Accra’s public health department is inspecting homes for toilets and prosecuting people in special sanitation courts. It’s also continuing with plans to build more public washrooms.

The national government provides free treatment for patients. There is also a national strategy and committee in place. And local media have reported on government plans to spend millions to provide drugs and speed up waste collection.

A big education push is underway throughout the country, reminding Ghanaians to wash their hands, be critical of the food they buy and to stop practices such as open defecation.

There are also calls coming from opposition MPs and NGOs to invest more money into water and sanitation infrastructure.

“Let's . . . go down to the root cause, and that is the poor sanitation in our urban areas,” opposition MP, Maxwell Kofi Jumah, told Accra’s Citi FM. “It is very clear that this government is not committed to it.”

And because fighting the epidemic also boils down to personal behaviour, the country’s health minister, Joseph Yieleh Chireh, says money alone will not be enough. Individuals must also step up to the plate.

“The issue of personal hygiene—ensuring that you eat clean food and make sure you don’t contaminate anything that you see—is important,” Chireh said on the same program. “It’s not something the government can come and wish away.”

Wishing away cholera is a feeling patient Enoch Opuku knows from experience.  As he sips from a bottle of water outside Korle Blu, he reflects on advice he has for other Ghanians.

“Be careful with what you eat, drink and where you stay. Wash your hands with soap and sponge anytime you have to eat, or you may contract the disease at any time.”

For patients like Opuku, it’s a lesson he knows first-hand.

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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