40 dead, 2,000 infected in country's first cholera outbreak in 50 years

SYDNEY — At least 40 people are dead and 2,000 infected as Papua New Guinea struggles to contain its first cholera outbreak in 50 years, The Associated Press reported Feb. 12.

WHO representative Eigil Sorenson said this week that the disease, already spreading through several provinces, could become endemic if the government does not do more.

He said, "There is no sign the epidemic is contained. Most of the deaths have occurred in newly affected areas before awareness of the disease has reached the community."

The outbreak started in northeastern Morobe province in July. Growing from temporary settlements around provincial capital Lae, the disease spread in following months to neighboring provinces, where remote villages are now also reporting cases.

The WHO says that in the long term, improvements in water supply, sanitation, food safety and community awareness of preventive measures are the best means of preventing cholera and other diarrheal diseases.

However, oral cholera vaccines of demonstrated safety and effectiveness have recently become available for use by individuals. Some countries have already used oral cholera vaccines to immunize populations considered to be at high risk for cholera outbreaks.

Evidence gained on the use of oral cholera vaccines is evolving rapidly, the WHO says. Work is under way to investigate the role of mass vaccination as a public health strategy for protecting at risk populations against cholera. Issues being addressed include logistics, cost, timing, vaccine production capacity and criteria for use of mass vaccination to contain and prevent outbreaks.