Friday October 20, 2017

Madagascar needs doctors and money to fight plague outbreak that's killed nearly 100

A woman on the streets of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, wears a protective mask to protect herself against the plague, which has killed nearly 100 people since the country since August.

A woman on the streets of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, wears a protective mask to protect herself against the plague, which has killed nearly 100 people since the country since August. (Annie Burns-Piieper/CBC)

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Story transcript

An unusually large plague outbreak in Madagascar has killed 94 people since August and the World Health Organization is working on the ground to stop its spread.

"The WHO is working with the government of Madagascar to find the gaps to support the country, to treat the patients, to provide the health-care workers medicines and infection control materials," Mamoudou Harouna Djingarey, the WHO's Madagascar response co-ordinator, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"We are also working with other partners in the country, United Nations organizations, the NGOs , and supporting them to fight this disease."

Plague is endemic in Madagascar, but this year's outbreak is unusual because for the first time the disease has affected the Indian Ocean island's two biggest cities, Antananarivo and Toamasina. 

The number of suspected cases has reached 1,153, the WHO said Friday.

More than 70 per cent of those cases are pneumonic plague, a more virulent form that spreads through coughing, sneezing or spitting and is almost always fatal if untreated.

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Doctors and nurses from the Madagascar Ministry of Health and officers of the Malagasy Red Cross staff a health-care checkpoint in Antananarivo. (Rijasolo/AFP/Getty Images)

In some cases, it can kill within 24 hours. Like the bubonic form that often is found in Madagascar's remote highlands, it can be treated with common antibiotics if caught in time.

The good news is the WHO has enough antibiotics on hand to treat 5,000 people who have the plague and 100,000 people who come into direct contact with someone who does. 

"If the situation changes, we may need more," Djingarey said.

Mamoudou Harouna Djingarey

Mamoudou Harouna Djingarey, the Magadascar response co-ordinator for the World Health Organization, says there's a need for more health-care workers to respond to the outbreak. (Nyka Alexander/WHO)

The bad news is that the Red Cross has warned that growing stigma attached to the disease could undermine efforts to contain the outbreak.

Staff on the ground say panic is exacerbating the stigma that may "drive people underground."

"That may result in us losing some of the contacts we are tracing in order to contain the outbreak," Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters. 

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Children wear face masks at a school in Antananarivo. (Alexander Joe/Associated Press)

That's why a big part of the WHO's response is education, Djingarey said.

"We are working on communication, social mobilization, crisis communication and community engagement [with] religious leaders, with traditional leaders so that all the population understands what the disease is, how severe it is and what they can do to protect themselves," he said.

"And in case they get the disease ... we can treat the patient and the patient will recover completely and very quickly."

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A council worker walks past sacks of potatoes as he sprays disinfectant during the cleanup of the market of Anosibe in Antananarivo. (Rijasolo/AFP/Getty Images)

The WHO has said the risk of global spread of the outbreak is low and it advises against travel or trade restrictions.

It is seeking $5.5 million US to support the plague response, and Djingarey is calling on health-care workers to join the effort. 

— With files from Associated Press and Reuters