NEW YORK, April 11 (UPI) -- Doctors Without Borders has announced a plan to vaccinate more than half a million people against cholera in Zambia, where an outbreak has made 664 sick and killed 12 since February.
The organization is working with the World Health Organization to vaccinate 578,000 people during the next two weeks in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, in addition to increasing efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene to limit the disease's spread.
During the rainy season in informal villages in Zambia, floodwaters can mix with pit latrines and unsafe, poorly dug water sources, creating rivers of contaminated water with the potential to cause and spread cholera epidemics.
"While vaccinating against cholera can be effective in halting an epidemic, it is not the only solution," Caroline Voûte, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said in a press release. "It should always be combined with treatment of patients and health education. At the same time, water, sanitation, and hygiene services must be ensured to reduce the risk of future epidemics."
On March 8, Zambia's Ministry of Health reported 104 cholera cases, though that number ballooned to 664 cases and 12 deaths as of April 7, according to Doctors Without Borders.
The oral cholera vaccine is usually given in two doses, however officials have decided to give one dose to each person, allowing them to treat double the number of people and slow the epidemic as quickly as possible. Concerns about a shortage of the vaccine led to the WHO approving a third company's bid to help boost global vaccine supplies to about six million doses.
The rainy season coming late this year is partially to blame for the outbreak, officials said, as the 1.2 million people who live in informal settlements dug shallow wells when boreholes ran dry. Floodwaters then mixed with drinking water and sewage, once it finally rained, creating rivers of contaminated water.
Improving sanitation and hygiene by disinfecting homes and educating people also will go a long way, Voûte said of efforts beyond vaccinating people.
"Lusaka has experienced regular cholera epidemics in the past, but this is the first outbreak since 2010," Voûte said. "With such a long period between outbreaks, the population has little to no acquired immunity to the disease, leaving a 'blank slate' for cholera transmission in these densely populated, flood-prone areas."