A deadly cholera outbreak in Syria has killed at least 39 people and infected hundreds more this past month, health officials said Wednesday, raising concerns about whether the war-torn country can put a stop to its spread.
The U.N. and Syria’s Health Ministry have said the source of the outbreak is believed to be linked to people drinking unsafe water from the Euphrates River and using contaminated water to irrigate crops, resulting in food contamination.
The outbreak hit government-held parts of the country as well as the areas in the northeast. Syria’s health services have suffered heavily from its yearslong war and much of the country is short on cleaning water supplies.
In government-held areas, the Health Ministry reported 23 deaths, 20 of them in the northern province of Aleppo in addition to at least 253 cases.
In areas of northeast Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters, Jwan Mustafa, the top health official in the region reported 16 deaths since Sept. 5, and 2,867 suspected cases of cholera. In the rebel-held northwest, the first case was reported this week.
Cholera is caused by ingesting contaminated water or food – something that can be hard to avoid in times of drought, conflict or over-crowding. The disease can spread quickly in contexts such as Syria where there are currently more than 7 million internally displaced persons. Many are living together in small tents and makeshift homes, with limited access to basic services such as safe water, latrines, washing facilities and rubbish disposal.
This outbreak is the first witnessed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population, many of whom are currently residing in crowded settlements. The civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population, many of whom now live in crowded tent settlements.