A cholera epidemic has killed at least 76 people and infected nearly 3,000 in Democratic Republic of Congo's south-eastern province of Katanga since the start of the year, health officials said.
Outbreaks of the waterborne disease swept across rural areas and urban centres in the mineral-rich province, where a mining boom has triggered major population growth in recent months, according to the Health Ministry and World Health Organization.
"This year is worse (than most)," Katanga's provincial health minister, Augustin Ilunga, said.
"There has been a major demographic explosion with the arrival of mining companies. Population has grown. And there are neighbourhoods without drinking water or proper sanitation," he told Reuters.
Interest in Congo's once-mighty mining sector has boomed since the holding of historic elections in 2006. The polls were meant to draw a line under a 1998-2003 war that killed an estimated 5.4 million people and left infrastructure in ruins.
Lubumbashi, the heavily populated capital of Katanga, and the mining city of Likasi, 90 km to the northwest, have been among the worst hit by the epidemic.
Cholera spreads mostly during the rainy season due to floods, which contaminate water systems. At its most acute, the disease causes sudden diarrhoea that can lead to death by severe dehydration and kidney failure.
It is endemic in many parts of Congo. However, large-scale epidemics in Lubumbashi, which alone has registered 1,284 cases of the disease including 18 deaths since the beginning of January, are relatively rare.
"We are hitting the peak now. The situation is stabilising more or less in Lubumbashi. But the root cause - contaminated water - has not been solved yet," provincial medical inspector, Eric Mukomena, said.
Treatment centres set up by the Belgian chapter of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Lubumbashi, Likasi, and the town of Bukama, about 300 km north of the provincial capital, have so far treated 2,784 patients.
"Likasi is still far from stable. It's a city of 300,000, and so there is still room for many more cases unfortunately," the head of MSF-Belgium's mission in Congo, Josep Prior, said.
"And we're still worried about the possibility of an extension of the epidemic to other cities."
Around 200 doctors, nurses and logistics experts from MSF and Congo's health ministry are working in three treatment centres in Lubumbashi and Likasi. – (Reuters Health/Joe Bavier)