Cameroon on Friday began a mass vaccination campaign against cholera for people aged one year and above in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of the epidemic that has so far killed at least 100 people.
Cholera broke out in the Central African country in March in the country’s crisis-ridden South West region but has since spread to six other regions.
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch reported that at least six people have died from the epidemic in the country’s notorious, overcrowded New Bell Prison in Douala.
According to the World Health Organization, Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Researchers estimate that each year there are 1.3 to 4.0 million cases of cholera, and 21 000 to 143 000 deaths worldwide due to cholera
Human Rights Watch fears the toll in Cameroon may rise in the New Bell Prison that currently hosts about 4,700 prisoners, “four times its capacity – most of whom are in pretrial detention, in violation of international norms.”
“The latest victim, 30-year-old political prisoner Rodrigue Ndagueho Koufet, died on April 7,” the New York-based rights body said.
“Koufet was among the over 500 people arrested during opposition-led demonstrations across Cameroon in September 2020 that were violently repressed by security forces. According to lawyers for the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), at least four other MRC supporters have been diagnosed with cholera at “New Bell.”
The overcrowding has been compounded by the lack of potable water and basic hygiene. A man held in the same cell as Koufet told HRW that there are 50 of them “squeezed in a 9 square meters cell. There’s no drinking water, and the hygienic conditions are deplorable.”
Government measures to curb the spread of the disease, including rolling out a vaccination campaign, encouraging regular hand washing, and ensuring drinking water is potable may be hard to reach in the country’s prisons where “the most basic hygienic measures are hard to practice.”
“This cholera outbreak shows how quickly abysmal prison conditions become life-threatening,” said HRW.
“Cameroon has an obligation under international law to ensure all detainees are held in humane and dignified conditions and to guarantee their right to health. It also should not be detaining people in pretrial detention except in exceptional circumstances.”
The rights body called for the release of “those at increased risk of severe complications from cholera, including children and older people. “
It called on the government to address the problem of overcrowding in prison “by releasing those held for minor offenses, those nearing the end of their sentence, and many of those being held in pretrial detention, or people like Koufet, who were detained for peacefully exercising their rights. Authorities should also ensure access to clean water and sanitation for prisoners.”
The latest outbreak adds to a long list of cholera outbreaks in Cameroon, the last one coming between January and August 2020 killing at least 66 people.