Algerian government criticised for mishandling cholera outbreak

As Algerians coped with the cholera health scare, authorities announced that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had flown to Geneva on August 26 for “regular medical checks.”
Sunday 02/09/2018
Health crisis. A doctor talks to a patient’s family outside a hospital as the country faces a cholera outbreak.  							   (AFP)
Health crisis. A doctor talks to a patient’s family outside a hospital as the country faces a cholera outbreak. (AFP)

TUNIS - A cholera outbreak in Algeria killed at least two people and infected more than 50 others, sparking panic and anger at the government for failing to properly address the crisis within the first two weeks.

Algerian Health Minister Mokhtar Hasbellaoui said the outbreak was “completely under control” on August 26, despite at least 56 confirmed cases in Algiers and neighbouring areas.

Cholera is an infectious bacterial disease that spreads rapidly through contaminated water or food, particularly in areas with poor sanitation or a lack of basic infrastructure. Its outbreak in Algeria coincided with Eid al-Adha when many people travel throughout the country.

Reports of the disease in Algeria emerged August 8 but the government was silent for two weeks, leaving the population confused about the disease’s possible causes. Health advisers filled the information vacuum and citizens took to social media to express outrage at the government’s “failure.”

“Algerians were left (completely alone) in the time of cholera,” said Algerian writer Riyad Hamadi. “Abandoned by the government, angry Algerians hit back with harsh criticism at the government with the Health Ministry as their first target.”

Local newspapers reported that a villager from Ain Bessem in Bouira province, 60km south-west of Algiers, was hospitalised with cholera-like symptoms on August 8. The man’s family members and friends who had been in contact with him reportedly fell ill, another indication of cholera, which has an incubation period of two hours to five days.

Authorities publicly acknowledged the presence of cholera on August 23 after about 150 people reported symptoms of the disease in Algiers, Tipaza, Bouira, Blida and Ain Defla. On August 26, the Health Ministry announced that two people had died from the disease and that there were 46 other confirmed cases.

Media outlets speculated that the government kept silent early on to “protect President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the effects of bad news about a mediaeval illness.”

As reports emerged, rumours spread on social media that the disease was being transmitted through tap water, watermelon, fruit and vegetables. Later disproven, the reports prompted residents in rural areas to buy large quantities of bottled water, the prices of which soared.

The rumours hurt local farmers, some of whom recorded messages on social media requesting that the government vouch for the safety of their produce.

Citizens and health officials took aim at the government, which they said had not taken adequate steps to keep the public informed about the disease.

“Cholera is an illness with mandatory reporting. Why has the Health Ministry tried to hide the truth?” asked one Algerian on social media. “No one in the government wants to shoulder responsibility while cholera came back from the water to lay bare the precariousness of the health system here.”

An Algerian web-user, claiming to be a physician, warned that “cholera is wreaking havoc. Is the government aware of such a disaster?”

“Algerians be aware. The state’s failure is becoming more and more apparent with the passing days,” the person added.

Another social media user wrote: “We never thought that Algeria would sink so low. With the presence of cholera and the absence of government, the solution is to reach into the drawer for the passport and leave this country. I will never look back and return home again.”

Hasbellaoui, speaking from Boufarik hospital outside Algiers, where many of the ill were hospitalised, said on state television on August 24 that “we will never talk again about cholera before the beginning of the academic year on September 5.”

“We have no time for talk. We have to work hard,” he said.

Authorities traced the origin of the outbreak to a contaminated water spring in Ain Sidi El Kebir in the coastal area of Tipaza outside Algiers.

“President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is calling me every hour to assess of the situation. He is inquiring every day about how the citizens are doing,” said Hasbellaoui, adding that the “government has a strategy to counter the disease.”

As Algerians coped with the health scare, authorities announced that Bouteflika, 81, had gone to Geneva on August 26 for “regular medical checks.”

Bouteflika has had a series of health problems and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Still, his backers urged him to seek a fifth mandate in elections next April. He has not announced whether he will run.