DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An outbreak of Rift Valley fever that has killed at least 28 people in western Niger in recent months could spread to neighboring Mali and Algeria, health officials warned on Monday.
The highly contagious disease, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes or close contact with contaminated animals, has infected 90 people in Niger's western region of Tahoua since early August, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
With no specific treatment or effective human vaccine, Rift Valley fever can cause blindness and severe hemorrhaging, leading the victim to vomit blood or even bleed to death.
There is a high risk that the disease could spread to the West African nation's neighbors amid insecurity in the region, the movement of nomadic herdsmen and limited health facilities in the affected areas, the WHO said in a statement.
"Herders migrating with their livestock pose the biggest risk of the epidemic crossing borders," Oumarou Maidadji, medical coordinator for The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The danger is particularly acute at present following a recent festival in the region that gathered nomadic groups and their cattle from several neighboring countries, he added.
Herders and farmers are deemed at higher risk of infection from the disease, which can devastate livestock, and account for most of the 90 cases recorded so far, according to the WHO.
People in Tahoua should avoid handling meat from infected animals, boil raw milk before consumption, and ensure corpses of dead animals are buried carefully, Niger's health ministry said last month after confirming the outbreak.
ALIMA has opened an emergency treatment center - in the hardest-hit district of Tchintabaraden - to look after the ill, and is working with partners including the Red Cross to inform the public about the disease and how to stop it from spreading.
The WHO said it has sent a team of experts to the region and set up a mobile laboratory, but warned that cases could be going undetected.
"The risk that only severe cases are being detected and reported cannot be ruled out," it said in a statement.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)