The number of cholera cases in war-torn South Sudan has topped 700 in the past five weeks, as the world’s youngest nation struggles to control the ongoing outbreak. At least 32 people have already succumbed to the disease, a fifth of them children younger than 5-years-old, the United Nations children’s fund said Tuesday.
The cases have been reported in Central Equatoria state as well as in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. U.N. officials said schools play a major role in containing the cholera outbreak because young children are particularly vulnerable, according to Reuters.
"It's a race against time to prevent the spread of cholera up the river Nile, especially during the rainy season. Our priority right now is reaching the most vulnerable children who urgently need clean water and vaccinations," Jonathan Veitch, a UNICEF representative in South Sudan, said in a statement to the media on Tuesday. "One of the most powerful ways we can respond to this outbreak is by equipping schoolchildren with the information and tools they need to protect themselves and their families."
Veitch also warned that the current outbreak, which was declared on June 23, could claim a devastating number of lives if it spreads into conflict-torn states, where nearly 200 health facilities have been destroyed or shut down. South Sudan’s health ministry said last month the initial cases were traced back to at a U.N. housing facility protecting refugees who had fled the African country’s raging civil war, according to Reuters.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since fighting broke out in December 2013 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with former Vice President Riek Machar. Another 1.5 million people have been internally displaced and more than 730,000 have fled to neighboring countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
At least 167 people died in a cholera outbreak in South Sudan last year out of over 6,421 reported cases, after the disease spread to five states, the World Health Organization said.
Cholera is an infectious bacterial disease that usually spreads through contaminated water and causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, which can be fatal if left untreated.