I had heard about cholera but never imagined I would catch it

July 27, 2011

I had heard about cholera but never imagined I would catch it

The cholera epidemic, which has so far caused more than 250 deaths, started in March in Kisangani, the capital of Oriental Province and the last stop on the Congo River for the cargo barges that are the main form of transport in this largely roadless area. An MSF team treated more than 1,000 cholera patients in Kisangani, and in mid-April the situation there was under control. But with thousands of people travelling up and down the Congo River every day, sporadic cases started appearing in towns and villages along the river.

Ebengo (7 years old) and his mother Victorine


"He loves playing - he's always trying to sneak away to meet up with his friends. And so when I got back from the market I was surprised to find him already in bed at 5pm. I started to get worried when he said he wasn't hungry - he normally eats masses. I thought he was just trying to get attention or something so I went over to see.

Just as I approached the bed he started violently throwing up. His stomach started cramping badly but he didn't have a temperature. Three times that night he had bad liquid diarrhoea. His eyes were sunken and he was pale and weak. I got very frightened and I started crying and praying. I started thinking he might die. I had lost control of the situation.

Then I remembered the radio announcements they have been playing about the cholera epidemic. I live not far away, just behind the Wangata reference hospital, so without delay, at the crack of dawn I came to the Médecins Sans Frontières treatment centre.

All it took was a half day of treatment and Ebengo is back to himself. He has been moved out of 'Plan C' [for the most severe cases] and is now under observation in the recuperation ward. I think that if I had waited half a day more at home my son would now be dead. I'm going to pay more attention to our hygiene from now on, but it will be hard as my 5 children and I share our toilets with 20 or so other people."

Eliezer Wetchi (7 years old) and his father


"To get to the MSF treatment centre we spent all night travelling down the Congo river from Bokuma to Mbandaka [approx 60km]. I had no choice. My youngest son Eliezer was going out like a candle. At first I thought it was malaria. He followed a course of malaria treatment for a week at the village health centre, but with no results. He was hardly eating and was throwing up and having diarrhoea all the time. It was on the radio that I heard about the cholera epidemic and that’s when I realised the only option was to get to the CTC as quickly as possible. Late in the evening I held Eliezer in my arms and and we got a place on the last motorised convoy to Mbandaka. I watched over him all night; I didn't dare close my eyes for a second. As soon as we got here, they started treating him and now he's much better - they say that soon he'll be able to go home.

I have mixed emotions; I am so relieved for my son, but at the same time I'm worried for the other people with the same symptoms in Bokuma. There are many people with the same illness but they don't know it's cholera and they may not have the same instinct as me, to come to Mbandaka."

Khaleb (5 and a half years old) and his father Jean-Bernard


"I came here at 6pm yesterday evening. I had heard the information that MSF was sending out about cholera on the radio and that's why I knew to come. Khaleb was vomiting water and he had diarrhoea like a fish and so I brought him here. I thank MSF for all they're doing here, and the nurses, I thank them too."

Daniel (10 years old) and his mother Mimi


Daniel says: "When it all started I felt hot and I went to wash myself to cool down. But before I could finish washing it all started right there. I started having diarrhoea and I got a very bad stomach ache and I felt I could hardly stand. Now I feel much better, but I'm very hungry."

His mother Mimi says: "We live on the islands just off Mbandaka. I wasn't there; it's my neighbours who saw that Daniel was getting very sick and they came and found me. I was out in my pirogue [dugout canoe] and they came and found me and together we brought him here. Daniel was in a bad way, vomiting and having diarrhoea - it was horrible. But things are better now, and I am so happy to see that he is starting to eat again.

When my neighbours came with him and found me I was afraid. And when we got here I was still afraid - I have no family here, no brothers or sisters, so I was totally alone and afraid. The treatment has been good, and the doctors and nurses have worked ceaselessly to help us. But I have to say that this is the worst experience I have lived through since he was born, and I am still quite frightened."

John (43 years old)


“I fell ill yesterday evening. At first I didn’t know what I had. I had diarrhoea and I was throwing up all night. In the morning I felt very weak. I became more worried when I saw my oldest son developing the same symptoms. First thing in the morning I jumped on a passing taxi-bicycle and went straight to the nearest pharmacy. They gave me a quick consultation and the result came as a shock to me – cholera. I had heard about cholera but never imagined I would catch it. I keep asking myself a thousand and one questions: did I pick it up at the central market, where I work as a tax-collector? Is it from the well where I get my water? Is my toilet contaminated – I mean it’s clean, but it’s the only toilet in the street. I just don’t know.

There are no ambulances so I had to come to the CTC on another taxi-bicycle. When I got here I was less frightened. A doctor told me that everything would be OK. They took me straight to the observation ward, settled me onto a toilet-chair and started giving me a medicine drink. I’m already feeling much better. I’m only throwing up every 2 hours now instead of all the time. I feel stronger and I’m reassured that MSF has sent people to look for my son. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I know I’m in good hands.” [John was fine to go home the next day].

Anna Bunyanga (4 years old) and her mother Anna-Victorina


"I come from the village of Impombo, a long way away from Mbandaka [approx 90km]. My son and I paddled a pirogue [dugout canoe] all through the night from dusk till dawn to get Anna to the CTC. Anna was in a bad state and I was very worried. I preferred to see her die in the hospital than to die myself of shame if I just stayed in Impondo. And I thought she might be cured if she got proper treatment. There were radio messages that were very clear - the treatment in Mbandaka was good and free. Now, after some treatment here, I am feeling more relaxed; Anna has got her strength back and has even started smiling. I don't want to have to come back here so I'm going to follow the hygiene instructions they've given me to protect me and my family."

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