Mysterious illness in South Sudan being investigated by World Health Organization

97 people have died of the unknown disease, mostly elderly and children under age 14

A mysterious illness has reportedly killed nearly 100 people in South Sudan, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to launch an investigation. 

According to reports, 97 people have died of the unknown disease in Fangak, Jonglei State, and the deaths have mostly been among the elderly and children under age 14, per ABC News. The agency began investigating the outbreak in November.

The South Sudan Ministry of Health said symptoms include cough, diarrhea, fever, headache, chest pain, joint pain, loss of appetite, and body weakness.  

WHO officials visited the region to investigate the mysterious illness. The area was recently hit with heavy floods, so samples from patients were tested for infectious bacterial disease, such as cholera. The samples returned negative results, Newsweek reports. 

The flooding is said to be the worst natural disaster in the region for the last 60 years, prompting over 200,000 people to flee their homes. Per the report, the humanitarian aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, noted that the people affected by the floods were at “higher risk of outbreaks and waterborne diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, cholera, and malaria.”

Sudan Refugee Crisis Worsens
Sudanese refugees crowd into a truck to head to a new refugee camp to escape flooding July 16, 2012, in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

In a statement last month, MSF called the floods a “perfect storm for disease outbreaks.”

“People do not have enough water or options for water storage, and there is no garbage collection, while dead goats and dogs are left rotting in the drainage systems,” the statement read. “With the conditions further worsened by the influx of new arrivals [at camps], people are at higher risk of outbreaks and waterborne diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, cholera and malaria.”

MSF previously condemned the “dangerously slow and inadequate” global aid response to the flooding.

“The dangerously slow and inadequate humanitarian response to this crisis is putting lives at risk. The deplorable situation inside Bentiu displacement camp—formerly a UN Protection of Civilians site—is not a new phenomenon,” said MSF emergency operations manager Will Turner.

“For years, we have repeatedly warned about the dire conditions, yet other organizations and agencies responsible for the water and sanitation services in the camp have not sufficiently increased or adjusted their activities. This paralysis is resulting in horrific living conditions and huge health risks for the people living in Bentiu camp and across makeshift camps in Bentiu town.”

According to reports, more than 835,000 people in Sudan have been affected by the flooding since May. Hundreds of thousands remained displaced. 

Sheila Baya, a lecturer in the College of Medicine at the University of Juba in South Sudan, told BBC News that non-governmental organizations are providing aid and setting up mobile clinics to treat people in need of medical care.

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