By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A cholera outbreak in war-torn South Sudan has killed at least 32 people, a fifth of them children under five, and schools have a major role to play in stemming the spread of the disease, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
More than 700 cholera cases have been reported in the capital Juba and Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, in the last five weeks, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
"Cholera is a deadly disease that inordinately affects young children," Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF representative in South Sudan, said in a statement.
"One of the most powerful ways we can respond to this outbreak is by equipping schoolchildren with the information and tools they need to protect themselves and their families."
An intestinal infection often linked to contaminated drinking water, cholera causes diarrhea and vomiting, leaving small children especially vulnerable to death from dehydration.
As many as 5,000 children under five are at risk of dying from cholera unless urgent action is taken to contain the outbreak, the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said last week.
Children are being encouraged to raise awareness about the disease among their families and communities in a country where only one in four adults are literate, according to UNICEF.
UNICEF is also broadcasting cholera prevention messages, hosting talk shows on radio stations, conducting vaccination campaigns and training volunteers, teachers and religious leaders about prevention and early detection of cholera.
Veitch said the cholera outbreak could lead to a devastating loss of life if it spreads into conflict-hit states where almost 200 health facilities have been closed or destroyed.
"It's a race against time to prevent the spread of cholera up the river Nile, especially during the rainy season. Our priority right now is reaching the most vulnerable children who urgently need clean water and vaccinations," Veitch said.
Health Minister Riek Gai Kok said last month that one of the casualties had died at a United Nations facility housing civilians seeking refuge from the civil war raging in the world's youngest nation state.
The conflict pits forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against rebels allied with former vice president Riek Machar, and more than 10,000 people have been killed since the fighting first erupted in December 2013.
The conflict has also created a humanitarian crisis, as more than 730,000 people have fled to neighboring countries and some 1.5 million people have been uprooted within the country, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
At least 167 people died in South Sudan in a cholera outbreak last year, according to the World Health Organization.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Tim Pearce. 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 www.trust.org)