REPORTS of rising cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea in several areas are raising the spectre of a public health disaster in a country where waterborne diseases are the main cause of death in young children. The worst-hit appears to be Pir Koh tehsil in Dera Bugti district of Balochistan where, according to government figures, at least six people have died while nearly 40 are infected with cholera. Independent reports claim that there have been no less than two dozen fatalities. Cases first began surfacing in Karachi in April as doctors reported receiving scores of patients — both adults and children — with cholera symptoms. Over 180 cases have so far been confirmed by the Sindh health department. A case has also been reported from Lahore, though the actual number is believed to be higher — something that the Punjab health authorities have yet to acknowledge.
Though both cholera and diarrhoea cause dehydration, the former disease is more severe. The rapid discharge of fluids from the body can cause a cholera patient to die within hours, if not treated. Unfortunately, the authorities have ignored this worrisome fact. Initially, officials in Sindh denied media reports about a cholera outbreak, but then, thankfully, instructed all major hospitals in Karachi to set up special wards for cholera patients. Doctors are apparently still treating many patients who have cholera symptoms, but without laboratory tests there is no way of knowing the extent of the outbreak. Cholera is a dangerous illness, and cannot be ignored. It is imperative that provincial governments instruct the relevant departments to investigate and confirm the nature of the pathogen infecting an unusually large number of people in the country, and then develop an effective strategy to check its spread. The country’s healthcare system is overstretched and has barely survived a pandemic. It may not be able to deal with a cholera outbreak that could spiral out of control unless safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities are ensured.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2022