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Guinea-Bissau’s Red Cross volunteers are fighting cholera

29-10-2008 Feature

Since May of this year, Guinea-Bissau has been in the throes of a cholera epidemic. By early October, 9,843 cases had been recorded and the death toll had risen to 178. The epidemic has hit mainly the south west of the country and the capital, Bissau, where various agencies have been working. In the isolated enclave of Sao Domingos, the ICRC has been mobilizing and training volunteers from the Guinea-Bissau Red Cross and supporting their efforts to fight the disease.

 Local Red Cross volunteers working to fight outbreak  

  Two of the volunteers give their accounts:
  Teacher Edigar Barreto dropped his work to help people whose lives are at risk: “It’s one of the principles of the Red Cross, I wanted to give my all to save lives. The hardest part was to win the villagers’ trust. In remote regions, the people are very wary. But we were sometimes surprised by the welcome we got. At Eskujac, for example, where the youngsters interrupted the preparations for a festival to come and help us.”

  Dionisio Biague, a 28-year old tailor: "The work was very tiring but worthwhile. I was able to help people who needed me. We received some training first. I was very impressed by the cooperation between our Red Cross, the ICRC and the regional heath authorities.”     

In the Sao Domingos region in the north west of the country, there are only a few humanitarian organizations on the ground: the Red Cross Society of Guinea-Bissau, the NGO Volunteers in Development Abroad (VIDA), Roman Catholic missions and the ICRC. This poor and isolated region where the people have very limited access to basic medical care has already been hit by cholera.

" The epidemic first struck in the village of Bulol, in the Varela area,” says Pedro Vaz, the region’s deputy health director. “The first death was on 14 August, and in the following week, there were 30 to 40 recorded cases and seven deaths.” On 26 August, the first case was recorded in Sao Domingos. By 1 October, throughout that health zone, which covers almost 85,000 inhabitants, some 162 declared cases of cholera had been recorded and 13 people had died.

A volunteer in a Sao Domingos village.    
    A small group of 30 volunteers from the Sao Domingos chapter of the Guinea-Bissau Red Cross, trained and supported by the ICRC, has launched a prevention campaign in the Suzana and Varela districts in the west of the region. The volunteers have been explaining to the people there the precautions they need to take to prevent to disease from spreading. At the same time, they have been using spraying equipment provided by VIDA and disinfectant products provided by the ICRC to carry out disinfecting operations.

The only road linking Sao Domingos to the western part of the region is considered dangerous since the recent discovery of an anti-vehicle mine 6 km from the town. The volunteers therefore had to take other routes to get to some of the villages.

Anssu Cisse, who is in charge of the Red Cross volunteers in Sao Domingos, explains: " We formed three teams of five volunteers. We had to travel on the bolongs (marshes and mangrove swamps) of Suzana and Varela in dug-out canoes, as there was no other way of reaching those places. Sometimes we had to walk for one or two hours to get to the most remote villages.” In just over nine days, the 15 volunteers visited 21 villages totalling some 14,000 inhabitants, and disinfected 250 wells and 220 latrines.


 Preventing cholera from spreading in the Sao Domingos hospital  

Disinfecting operations in the Sao Domingos market.    
    To prevent the spread of cholera in the precincts of the small health centre in Sao Domingos, the Red Cross volunteers built a temporary shelter with the support of the ICRC so that the cholera patients could be quarantined from the rest.

Red Cross volunteer Filomena Da Silva is a small, energetic woman and one of two nurses who have been working shifts at the health centre round the clock since 19 September. " The cholera patients are taken to hospital for treatment, then transferred to this shelter as quickly as possible to avoid any risk of infection in the hospital itself,” she explains. The quarantine shelter has 10 beds and a small office.

Each time a new case is discovered, volunteers go to disinfect the patient’s home. At present, two teams of volunteers continue to patrol the districts of Sao Domingos, the market and the surrounding villages.

However, although the keen, young volunteers of Sao Domingos are doing an admirable job, the spread of cholera has not yet been checked. Several villages still remain to be visited, particularly in the eastern part of Sao Domin gos region, and the Ingore health centre needs a shelter like the one set up in Sao Domingos town. The region as a whole is desperately short of resources. Moreover, the outbreak could prove stubborn as a result of this summer’s torrential rains.