Tackling cholera outbreaks in South Sudan

Published: 5 September 2014 11:13 CET

By Chiran Livera, IFRC and Marial Mayom, South Sudan Red Cross

South Sudan is currently battling a cholera outbreak. Since mid-May cholera outbreaks or alerts have been reported in seven of South Sudan's ten states with, as of mad-August, 5,859 reported cases and 127 deaths. The South Sudan Red Cross has mobilized and trained hundreds of volunteers to spread messages about cholera prevention through home visits and through the use of radio and mobile cinema.

Cholera is a fast-moving infection, but it is treatable if detected on time. For two-year-old David*, it may have been the quick thinking of his teenage babysitter that saved his life.

Three weeks ago, David started showing all the common signs of cholera – dehydration, vomiting and muscle cramps. While his mother was working in the fields, the babysitter brought David to the Red Cross oral rehydration point (ORP) in Torit, 150 km east of Juba and close to South Sudan’s border with Uganda. The ORP has been set up to detect and assist with early intervention of cholera. Patients are receiving oral rehydration treatment and severe cases are referred to cholera treatment centres. At this point, two Red Cross volunteers took David inside and provided him clean water with rehydration salts. This specific mixture allows the body to regain strength and counter some of the symptoms of the disease.

Despite the speedy intervention, David’s condition worsened. Red Cross volunteers quickly took him to the main hospital in town. Along the way, he was provided with the oral rehydration salts to stay alive. At the hospital, with his mother at his side, David recovered. Within a few days, he was smiling and back on his feet.  

Grateful for the life-saving treatment of Red Cross staff and volunteers, David’s mother drops by the Red Cross community rehydration point often. She comes by to simply say “thank you”. She is curious about the work of the Red Cross – she asks how the Red Cross works and how we became so knowledgeable about cholera and first aid that we were able to save her son’s life. We explained how we work, our mission, and we can see the appreciation and glimmer of another humanitarian in the making. She left feeling content and says she will come by next week to learn more.

Social mobilization and health education through hygiene promotion and mobile cinemas are at the core of the IFRC response in support of South Sudan Red Cross. The South Sudan Red Cross has trained 426 volunteers to disseminate messages to prevent the further spread of disease, as well as distribute oral rehydration salts, water purification tablets and soap. Community-based interventions are vital for strengthening a community’s capacity to cope when access to public services is limited.

The Red Cross community rehydration point provides a crucial service at the village level as a first intervention to the various health situations plaguing this area. Cholera is the focus now and volunteers continue to see people daily, providing them with much needed clean water, a place to rest and importantly, information about how to prevent and treat cholera.

Sixty staff and volunteers in Juba and Mingkaman have taken part in communication skills and complaint management training, which aims to equip frontline volunteers with the skills and knowledge to build better relationships with communities affected and displaced by the conflict. Training sessions have been conducted with representatives from all ten branches so the skills can be shared with volunteers across the country.

*name changed