The diarrhoea and vomiting started before dawn. By 8 am, 12 year old Steward Okoulokami was weak and losing weight. His panicked father, Dimitri, packed Steward into a canoe and took him to the Congolese capital, Brazzaville.
“In the morning around 8am, when I looked at my son, he had lost a lot of weight and looked like a skeleton,” explains Dimitri. “So I thought, no - I must go to Brazzaville. When we got to Brazzaville, he was hospitalised and we spent 5 days there. On the 6th day we left and now he is alive and in good health.”
Dimitiri and his family live on Isle M'bamou, a large island of 13 villages on the Congo river, not far from the twin capital cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. There is no electricity, running water or hospital on the island, so when the cholera outbreak hit, it was devastating. No one knew what it was or where it came from. While Steward survived, his cousin was not so lucky.
“For my nephew, it was a short illness,” explains Dimitiri. “When he started having diarrhoea, we noticed that he became like a skeleton in only half a day. He lasted only one day. By the second night he was dead.”
The cholera outbreak that devastated Isle M'bamou originated in the northern DRC before moving down and across the river into the Republic of Congo. When the outbreak reached Brazzaville, squatter settlements with poor sanitation were the worst hit. Makeshift latrines feed directly into the same stream in which children play and people bathe.
In response, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) allocated US$1.3 million to support the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization (WHO) in launching a series of initiatives to treat, combat and prevent the disease.
The cholera outbreak was just one of the areas in which CERF – the humanitarian fund established by the UN General Assembly to enable more timely and reliable aid in emergencies – provided money for urgent, life-saving projects last year.
The 2011 CERF Annual Report, launched today, shows that the fund gave US$427 m to 11 agencies and the International Organization for Migration. Despite the challenging economic environment, CERF raised more than $465m in 2011 - the highest amount since it was established in 2006.
On Isle M'bamou, CERF money went towards setting up chlorination points and training people to purify the river water that households use for drinking, cooking and bathing. It also paid for public latrines in markets and schools, and a programme to teach villagers the importance of hygiene, clean water and hand-washing.
“There is a saying that “ignorance kills” says Dimitri, “Before I didn’t know about cholera and that is why I lost my nephew. But now that I have this knowledge, it won't happen again.”