Congolese farmers and fishermen are seen along the Congo River in Kinshasa. WHO reported on Sunday that at least 528 people had died as cholera spread to 20 of the DRC's 26 provinces. File picture: John Wessels/AFP

Johannesburg - The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that more than 500 people have died in the cholera epidemic that is sweeping across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Furthermore, Congo remains vulnerable to the deadly disease due to poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean drinking water, as well as the continuing fighting in the country.

This year the epidemic has hit the capital Kinshasa, as well as at least 10 other urban areas, and is of particular concern due to the approximately 1.4 million displaced by the ongoing violence in Congo’s central Kasai region.

WHO reported on Sunday that at least 528 people had died as the disease spread to 20 of Congo’s 26 provinces.

More than 24,000 cases have been recorded across the country so far by health officials this year, averaging more than 1,500 new cases per week since the end of July.

In an effort to contain the disease WHO sent a team of experts including epidemiologists and public health specialists to Congo this month. But despite some improvement in areas stricken by conflict the fragile security situation the ongoing fighting is exacerbating heath threats.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the return of the displaced populations remained fraught with challenges.

“Despite the critical situation, some Congolese who had sought refuge in Angola are trying to return to their homes in Kasaï,” spokesperson Cécile Pouilly, told journalists at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.

However, many of those spontaneously returning home saw their houses destroyed and are now forced to live in internal displacement-like conditions.

“UNHCR staff saw entire villages burnt down and civilians in a dire situation, as basic services had largely stopped and lawlessness prevailed,” she added.

Nine out of 10 villages, near the border town of Kamako were burnt down in attacks by armed groups or fighting between them and government forces. Health posts, schools and public buildings were also systematically destroyed or pillaged by local armed groups.

The worst affected by the situation are the children as hundreds have been separated from their families or witnessed their murders. Those requiring medical treatment, the disabled and the elderly are also the most vulnerable. 

UNHCR’s response in the country is also hampered by lack of resources. Of the $102.5 million needed, only about 17 percent has been received while lack of access is causing further difficulties.

The instability in Kasai erupted over a year ago following local tensions which then spread to nine out the 26 provinces of the African nation. Since April 2017, some 33,000 refugees fleeing the conflict had been registered in the country’s Lunda Norte province, according to UNHCR.