West Africa cholera spreading

A cholera epidemic spreading across West Africa has sickened tens of thousands of people this year and killed nearly 500 amid a long-term deterioration in health conditions in one of the world's poorest regions, the United Nations said Thursday.

Cholera has stricken 31,259 people in nine west African countries since June and 488 are reported dead in what the United Nations said was an "upsurge" of the disease. Year-ago figures weren't provided.

"It's not business as usual. We have a crisis that needs immediate attention," Herve Ludovic de Lys, head of coordination of the U.N.'s humanitarian efforts in the region, told reporters. "This crisis needs a rapid response."

As heavy rains continue across West Africa, cholera, a bacterial infection of the intestine, is likely to spread into Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad in the coming months, the world body said in a statement.

The increase in cholera this year is part of a longer-term deterioration of conditions in West Africa, de Lys said.

"It's a region which worsens each year. That's the reality of West Africa and the situation in which we're working," de Lys said of the region containing many of the world's least-developed nations.

Difficult climatic conditions and conflict cause mass movements of people, hurting efforts to contain the disease that causes death by dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting, said de Lys.

Cholera can be easily treated if patients are rehydrated quickly.

Cholera is often transmitted by infected water, rarely a problem in rich nations but all too common in a region of pit latrines, untreated drinking-water supplies and communal wells.