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Cholera spreading ‘rapidly’ across Lebanon: WHO

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A deadly cholera outbreak is spreading “rapidly” across Lebanon, exacerbated by a prolonged economic crisis and crumbling infrastructure, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Monday.

Lebanon’s first cholera outbreak in decades began earlier this month after the virulent disease spread from neighbouring Syria.

“The situation in Lebanon is fragile as the country already struggles to fight other crises, compounded by prolonged political and economic deterioration,” said Abdinasir Abubakar, the WHO representative in Lebanon.

Since October 5, more than 1,400 suspected cases have been reported in Lebanon, including 381 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, the WHO said in a statement.

While the outbreak was initially confined to the impoverished north, it has “rapidly spread” across Lebanon, it added.

The WHO said it has helped the cash-strapped country secure 600,000 vaccine doses, and efforts to secure more are “ongoing given the rapid spread of the outbreak”.

Cholera is generally contracted from contaminated food or water and causes diarrhoea and vomiting. It can also spread in residential areas that lack proper sewerage networks or mains drinking water.

The outbreak in Lebanon comes on the heels of a recent wave in Syria, where more than a decade of war has damaged nearly two-thirds of water treatment plants, half of the pumping stations and one-third of water towers, according to the United Nations.

The Euphrates River, which has been contaminated by sewage, is believed to be the source of Syria’s first major cholera outbreak since 2009.

The cholera strain identified in Lebanon is “similar to the one circulating in Syria”, the WHO said.

Lebanese authorities have said most cases were among Syrian refugees.

Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, many of them already poverty-stricken before Lebanon’s economic collapse began three years ago.

“The vulnerability of people in Lebanon is being exacerbated by prolonged economic conditions and limited access to clean water and proper sanitation across the country,” the WHO said.

Frequent and prolonged power cuts across Lebanon have interrupted the work of water pumping stations and sewerage networks.

Cholera can kill within hours if left untreated, according to the WHO, but many of those infected will have no or mild symptoms.

Worldwide, the disease affects between 1.3 million and four million people each year, killing between 21,000 and 143,000 people.