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Sierra Leone: Devastating Mudslide and Cholera Fears

WARRENTON VA, United States

Further heavy rain is expected this week in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, increasing risk of waterborne disease in the country, according to a report by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS). Contamination of drinking water and sewage overflows are expected in the days and weeks to come.

A mudslide on August 14th killed around 400 people in the Regent area near Freetown following the collapse of a hillside which occurred early in the morning while many were asleep. 600 people remain unaccounted for, and an estimated 3,000 have been made homeless.

The country’s President Ernest Bai Koroma has declared seven days of mourning and issued a plea for "urgent support".

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this week that he was “saddened by the deaths and devastation caused by the mudslide and flooding in the town of Regent, Sierra Leone, and throughout Freetown”.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement that “the UN Country Team and humanitarian partners are conducting needs assessment missions in Sierra Leone following the heavy flooding there”.

“Contingency plans are being put in place to mitigate any potential outbreak of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhea”, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, confirming that the UN country team in Sierra Leone has mobilized and is “supporting national authorities in rescue operations, helping evacuate residents, providing medical assistance to the injured, registering survivors, and providing food rations, water and dignity kits to those affected.” Dujarric noted that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released $150,000 USD in emergency funds immediately following the flooding.

The risk of waterborne diseases in Sierra Leone is compounded by a poor health system and crowded conditions in the country, where cholera is endemic and outbreaks are recurrent.

International aid agency Oxfam is providing clean water and hygiene kits to survivors of the mudslide. Daniel Byrne, part of the Oxfam team that visited the worst affected areas this week, said: “We saw mass destruction – people were pulling bodies out with their bare hands. We didn’t see any survivors from the homes that had been submerged”.

“These are some of the poorest areas in Freetown. Water and sanitation in homes is at best very basic, but at worst non-existent. Overcrowding is a serious health risk and a potential breeding ground for the spread of disease”.

Oxfam reports that people are being moved to response centers set up in local schools and police stations, but the Sierra Leone Office of National Security expressed serious concerns about the health situation, warning that “water and sanitation must be urgently addressed in order to mitigate the risk of a cholera epidemic”.