40 dead as cholera outbreak hits Papua New Guinea

The island nation of Papua New Guinea is struggling to contain its first cholera outbreak in 50 years, which has killed at least 40 people and sickened 2,000 over the past several months, a top World Health Organization official said.

The disease, which has spread through several provinces, could become endemic if the government does not do more to educate people and ensure they have access to clean water, WHO representative Eigil Sorenson told The Associated Press by telephone this week.

"There is no sign the epidemic is contained," he said. "Most of the deaths have occurred in newly affected areas before awareness of the disease has reached the community."

Cholera, primarily a water-born disease that causes severe diarrhea, usually occurs in settlements with poor water sanitation.

Sorenson said the outbreak could become a major challenge for the health care system of the country, which shares a border with Indonesia.

The outbreak started in July in northeastern Morobe province, according to Enoch Posamai, executive manager of the country's Public Health Department. The disease was first reported in temporary settlements around the provincial capital of Lae, and then spread to neighboring provinces, where remote villages are now seeing cases.