UK gives £2m for Syria cholera outbreak as vaccine shortage bites

The WHO has advised countries administer one shot of the life-saving treatment as there are not enough doses

Woman and her baby arrive for treatment at a recently-opened cholera treatment centre in the Syrian town of Darkush, on the outskirts of the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib. AFP
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The UK on Friday announced £2 million ($2.3m) to treat the outbreak of cholera in Syria.

The money will be channelled to Unicef, the UN aid agency for children, to combat the growing outbreak more than 10 years after the start of the civil war.

Days earlier, Italy announced €500,000 ($498,000) for the World Health Organisation’s cholera response in Syria.

The UK’s money will help to establish cholera treatment centres, give people access to cholera kits, and train the public on how to prevent the spread of cholera, the UK Foreign Office said in a statement.

The Syria Health Ministry reported a cholera outbreak in 13 of 14 governorates with a total of 44 deaths and 942 confirmed cases. AFP

“We are deeply concerned by the cholera outbreak across Syria, the first in more than 10 years,” Minister of State Lord Tariq Ahmad said.

“With humanitarian needs the highest they have ever been, there is a significant risk that malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and chronic conditions, will see the situation deteriorate even further.”

He said that the funding would provide lifesaving care and that the UK had “not forgotten” Syria.

The WHO has sounded the alarm over the rising cases of cholera in Syria that have spread to neighbouring Lebanon.

On October 22, the Syria Health Ministry reported a cholera outbreak in 13 of 14 governorates with a total of 44 deaths and 942 confirmed cases.

Cholera is a bacteria that sickens people who swallow contaminated food or water, and it can cause severe vomiting and diarrhoea, in some cases leading to death.

However, given the rising caseload and a shortage of supplies, the WHO last week recommended partners and countries only give one dose of the cholera vaccine instead of two.

It said that one dose of vaccine has proven effective in stopping outbreaks “even though evidence on the exact duration of protection is limited” and appears to be lower in children.

A lab technician works on samples to test for cholera, at a hospital in Syria's northern city of Aleppo. AFP

“This last-resort decision is a way to avoid making the impossible choice of sending doses to one country over another,” said Dr Daniela Garone, international medical co-ordinator at Doctors Without Borders, one of WHO’s partners in managing the global cholera vaccine stockpile.

“Single dose vaccination will provide shorter protection, but it is the fair and equitable way to try to protect as many people as possible as we face simultaneous cholera outbreaks.”

The outbreak in Syria comes as Haiti’s hospitals are overwhelmed with cases, and Nigeria has reported an outbreak where more than 5,000 cases were recorded in north-eastern Borno state.

WHO said that of the 36 million vaccine doses expected for 2022, 24 million were already been shipped for immunisation campaigns.

It said there was no short-term solution to increase production. A global task force on cholera has estimated that the world needs about 250 million cholera vaccines until 2025, both to stop outbreaks and for preventive immunisation campaigns.

Shantha Biotechnics, an Indian subsidiary of the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, announced that it would stop making cholera vaccines by the end of this year.

This leaves the world with one manufacturer, the South Korean company EuBiologics, for the easy-to-produce oral vaccine.

— Additional reporting by agencies

Updated: October 29, 2022, 10:40 AM