Afghan capital on verge of epidemic

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan capital is on the verge of a cholera epidemic, with more than 2,000 cases of the disease and at least eight deaths reported in recent weeks, a health expert warned Tuesday.

Afghanistan's Health Ministry on Monday confirmed up to 300 cases, but claimed they have been dealt with and there had been no fatalities. It said there was no risk of the disease spreading.

But on Tuesday, Fred Hartman, technical director for a USAID-backed health and development program, told The Associated Press that eight or nine people had died in the past two weeks, and warned the disease could spread quickly throughout the city's 4 million population.

Hartman said the disease had been detected in wells around the city, the source for drinking water for most of the city's residents. He added that the government was well-equipped to deal with the outbreak and had set up an emergency task force to ensure that hospitals have the necessary equipment and medicine to treat patients.

He said the disease had been detected in wells around the city, the source of drinking water for most of the city's residents.

Cholera is a major killer in developing countries, where it is spread mainly through contaminated food or water. The bacterium attacks the intestine and causes diarrhea and dehydration.

The warning was in stark contrast to Health Ministry official Ahmid Shah Shukomand's claim Monday that the outbreak had been contained.

"We had about 200 to 300 cases, but they were discharged from hospitals after treatment," Shukomand told The Associated Press.

Shukomand on Tuesday reiterated those comments, and said even those few hundred people suspected of having cholera have not been confirmed to have the illness.

He said authorities had launched a campaign urging people to boil drinking water, wash vegetables before eating them and regularly wash hands. Health ministry workers have chlorinated wells throughout the city, he added.

A spokesman for UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, Edward Carwardine, said the last cholera outbreak in Kabul was in 2003 when there were 7,000 suspected cases. But he said the government was fast to respond and the disease quickly disappeared after wells were chlorinated.

In 2001, 114 people died from a cholera outbreak in Afghanistan's north, according to the World Health Organization's Web site. It had not information on the latest cases.

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