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WHO urges immediate action amid Cholera vaccine shortage

Health & Science
  A nurse administers a dose of the cholera vaccine at the Kuwadzana Polyclinic in Harare, Zimbabwe, Jan. 29, 2024. [AFP]

The World Health Organization on Wednesday called for immediate action to combat a worldwide spike in cholera cases amid a global vaccine shortage.

"Immediate action is needed to stem an unprecedented multiyear upsurge in cholera cases worldwide," WHO's International Coordinating Group on Vaccine Provision said in a statement. "The severe gap in the number of available vaccine doses, compared with the level of current need, puts unprecedented pressure on the global stockpile of vaccines."

The group manages the global cholera vaccine stockpile. It predicts vaccine shortages to continue for at least two years.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. If untreated, cholera can kill within hours. The WHO reports that, worldwide, as many as 143,000 people die each year because of cholera.

The main cause of cholera is a lack of clean water, soap and adequate sanitation. Proposed actions to mitigate the spread of cholera include investing in safe water access and increasing sanitation and hygiene measures. Improving testing to detect outbreaks more quickly and supporting overall accessible and quality health care is also imperative. Fast-tracking production of affordable oral cholera vaccine is a way to further prevent further increasing cases.

The only organization that produces the cholera vaccine is the South Korean EuBiologics Company, which is unable to keep up with the demand. There are no new manufacturers expected to produce the vaccine before 2025, perpetuating fears about shortages.

In 2022, to combat shortages, the ICG lowered the recommended dosage from two vaccinations to just one. In 2022, cases doubled from previous years to 473,000. In 2023, that number rose to around 700,000.

The expected global vaccine production for 2024 is between 17 million and 50 million doses. However, the ICG said it "will likely continue to be inadequate to serve the needs of millions of people directly affected by cholera."

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