Sudan government denies Rift Valley fever outbreak despite reports of deaths

Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An outbreak of Rift Valley fever has killed dozens of people and infected more than 1,000 in Sudan’s Northern state, according to local doctors.

Doctors told the Guardian the disease has spread across the towns of Merowe, Al Dabbah and Karima, mainly among cattle herders.

However, the Sudanese government has so far denied there is an outbreak of the disease. On 10 October, Mohamed Hamdan Hemedti, head of paramilitary unit the Rapid Support Forces and vice-president of the sovereign council, said the country was free of the fever. “We don’t have the Rift Valley fever disease in Sudan, we don’t have it at all,” he said at an event in Khartoum.

Dr Abdulhadi Gendeel, a former lab technician from a village near Merowe, said his uncle, 50, and brother-in-law, 27, had died of the disease, which can affect humans and animals. Both died within two days of developing symptoms, he said.

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“My brother-in-law got sick first, and they thought it was malaria but it wasn’t,” Gendeel said. “After testing him three times, his situation got worse. He had kidney failure and needed a blood transfusion, so he was sent to Khartoum. But many hospitals refused to receive him … and at the end only one hospital agreed to treat him.”

He added: “My uncle travelled all the way to see him in Khartoum, but two days later we found out that he had developed the same symptoms and died.”

He said his relatives had developed symptoms similar to jaundice, including low blood pressure and kidney and liver failure.

Last year, 11 people in Sudan died of Rift Valley fever and hundreds more were infected after the disease spread across the Red Sea and Nile states, according to Acaps, an NGO based in Geneva that provides independent humanitarian analysis.

This year, the first cases of the disease among humans appeared in late August, following unprecedented heavy rains and flooding of the Nile. About 10 million people in Sudan are now at risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as cholera due to the flooding, and millions more are at risk of malaria, Acaps said.

Earlier this year, Sudan’s former health minister, Akram al-Toum, declared an outbreak of Rift Valley fever among animals.

Mona El-Arbab, a public health specialist at Al-Daman private hospital in Merowe, said the hospital had allocated an entire wing for patients with Rift Valley fever. “We receive about 80 cases a day. Some people come to the hospital bleeding and those [patients] normally die,” she said.

In response, the government has announced a public health emergency in Merowe, but has not confirmed that the outbreak is Rift Valley fever.

The governor of Merowe, Amal Izzeldien, said 63 people had died and 1,512 had been infected by different diseases without specifying what these were. The acting minister of health, Usama Abdul-Rahim, said malaria was spreading and about 70,000 cases were being registered weekly.

In August, Saudi Arabia returned thousands of Sudanese livestock to the country after saying the animals had not been vaccinated against Rift Valley fever. About 3,000 of the animals later died of hunger and thirst at Port Sudan.

Doctors said Northern state did not have a single CBC testing machine to monitor blood counts, which was making their job difficult.

Dr Manal Hassan, a GP at Merowe’s public hospital, said it was overwhelmed by severe cases of the fever. “Among 80 cases we receive in a day about 50 of them have been infected by this fever, and I personally saw three [people] die of it,” she said.

“Some of the patients were lying under trees in the hospital yard because the fans inside the wards had stopped working,” she added. “Now they are in the same place as patients suffering with other illness, which is very dangerous because they might get infected by the Rift Valley fever as well.”

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The disease is caused by the Aedes mosquito and can be transmitted from animals to humans. “It’s the first time since I started working at hospitals that I have seen such a disease. Most of the cases are among people who have animals,” said Hassan. “The danger of this mosquito is that its eggs could live for a long time in the soil.”

West Darfur state is facing an outbreak of another fever: the Chikungunya virus, which has led to several deaths, with thousands of people reported to be infected. A pharmacist and public health practitioner based in the state capital El-Geneina, who did not want to give their name, said some people had died of the disease and “almost every household has someone infected by the fever”.

The Chikungunya virus is also transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and causes similar symptoms. In 2018, thousands of people were infected by the virus in the eastern state of Kassala and seven died, according to the government.

In El-Geneina, charity volunteer Nasma Abdallah said her 14-year-old nephew had been infected and was unable to walk for five days. “He’s been getting some treatment at home,” she said.