The nation of Solomon Islands is facing a new and deadly threat after flooding destroyed delicate water infrastructure. The Solomon Islands diarrhea outbreak has already killed 18 people and threatens to claim more lives if measures are not taken soon.
Solomon Islands was decimated in early April by a series of destructive floods. The small nation, located north and east off the coast of Queensland, Australia, saw 60,000 of its residents made homeless by the storms—over 10 percent of its population.
The flood’s direct damage to human life was great enough, but two months later, outbreaks of diarrhea in late May and early June are extending the death toll. The rotavirus, a deadly and highly-contagious virus transmitted by vomit and fecal matter, has claimed victims in six of Solomon Islands’ ten provinces.
The virus is communicable by food, drink and, depending on the sick person’s hygiene, basic physical contact. Those who contract the virus show symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea within 1-3 days of infection.
Though upward of 20,000 children were vaccinated against the rotavirus following April’s flooding, the contamination of Solomon Islanders’ water supply was complete enough that over 1,000 cases of extreme diarrhea have been reported in the past two weeks. Most of the infected are young, and all 18 of the reported deaths have been children under the age of 5.
Rotavirus causes intense diarrhea, which in turn leads to severe dehydration. If untreated, this dehydration can kill. At a certain point, children simply stop drinking water despite their desperate need for it, and proper medical intervention is required to save a child’s life.
Fortunately, UNICEF is fighting the Solomon Islands diarrhea outbreak with two very basic tools: soap and information. The soap is distributed in the hardest-hit areas, and colorful, hand-shaped information cards are also given out. These cards not only emphasize the importance of hand-washing by their shape, but they also contain valuable tips for staying safe and healthy during the outbreak.
Instructions for preventing the spread of the rotavirus include washing hands for at least 10 seconds after using the toilet, before handling or eating food and after caring for or coming into contact with any infected individuals.
Health officials currently do not plan on bringing the rotavirus vaccine back to Solomon Islands. Instead, they predict that proper hygiene should be enough to put an end to the outbreak.
In the meantime, parents who notice signs of illness in their children are urged to bring them to a doctor right away. Doctors can provide a child with oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets, both of which help prevent dehydration and can reverse even severe cases.
However, this safety net may not be so reliable. Dorothy Wickham, correspondent for Radio New Zealand, reports that hospitals in Solomon Islands are becoming overburdened. Doctors may not be able to treat all of the children who are brought in, and epidemiologist Jennie Musto predicts the outbreak could last up to another month.
For now, both parents and aid groups are doing what they can to combat the outbreak and to keep their children safe.
– Patricia Mackey