DAKAR (AlertNet) - Cameroon has launched a campaign to prevent over 1.3 million children contracting cholera which has already killed 330 people in the country's worst outbreak in 20 years, an official of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says.
Experts warn the disease, which has infected some 4,500 people in the north, could spread throughout the country unless effective measures are taken promptly.
The UNICEF-backed campaign aims to boost awareness of hygiene practices needed to prevent cholera, such as washing hands with soap, washing and cooking food well, using a latrine and drinking potable water.
"We are concerned because schools are starting and a majority of the 3,639 schools in the three northern regions hit by cholera do not have clean water and sanitation facilities," Ora Musu Clemens-Hope, the head of UNICEF in Cameroon told AlertNet by phone from Yaounde on Monday.
The campaign includes radio and television adverts, SMS messaging, posters, leaflets, stickers, school exercise books featuring cholera prevention messages and door-to-door visits by Red Cross volunteers.
Cholera is caused by contaminated water and food often as a result of poor sanitation. It leads to acute diarrhoea, vomiting, serious dehydration, and in some cases death.
Clemens-Hope said the scale of the outbreak was due to a lack of basic hygiene and sanitation awareness and limited access to healthcare.
"Treated promptly, most will recover from cholera. Without appropriate medical care, death is certain," Clemens-Hope added.
The government of Cameroon has allocated $590,000 to respond to the disease. International aid agencies on the ground hope this will go towards constructing wells and latrines to deal with the underlying causes of the outbreak.
Health experts warn the disease could become a major regional problem unless there is immediate and appropriate action.
There are already cholera outbreaks in neighbouring Nigeria, which has seen 500 deaths and 10,000 infections, and in Chad with 41 deaths and 600 reported infections, according to UNICEF.
"Basically we think it is the same epidemic which started in Nigeria crossed over to Cameroon and now to Chad ... cholera doesn't show any allegiance to country, and international borders can't keep it in," said Chris Cormency, UNICEF's regional adviser for water, hygiene and sanitation in west and central Africa.
Cormency said it was vital for countries in the region to improve on early warning systems that would enable a prompt response to prevent any outbreaks spinning out of control.
"If we are notified in time we can get people in there as soon as possible and coordinate with the governments to get that (cholera) contained and that hasn't happened in this case," Cormency said in Dakar.
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