By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - A cholera epidemic sweeping through west and Central Africa, one of the biggest in the vast region's history, has infected more than 85,000 people, killing at least 2,466 so far this year, United Nations aid agencies said Tuesday.
The virulent diarrhea disease is spreading quickly along waterways between and within countries, causing an "unacceptably high" rate of fatalities, the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF said.
"The size and the scale of the outbreaks mean the region is facing one of the biggest epidemics in its history," UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told a news briefing in Geneva.
Chad is experiencing its largest cholera outbreak ever recorded, 9 out of 10 districts in Cameroon are reporting cases and the case fatality rate in western Democratic Republic of Congo is above five percent, she added.
The acute intestinal infection, often linked to contaminated drinking water or food, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, leaving young children especially vulnerable to death from dehydration. Malnourished children are especially at risk.
Aid agencies say that with proper treatment, fewer than one percent of cholera patients should die.
Five countries -- Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria-- account for 90 percent of overall cases and deaths in more than 20 countries, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic of the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
UNICEF said that many outbreaks had begun outside of the typical cholera season and now affected countries where the disease is not endemic. It feared further spread in coastal areas of central Africa where higher than normal rainfall was expected till year-end.
It identified three major cross-border cholera outbreaks: the Lake Chad Basin (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger), the West Congo Basin (Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic) and Lake Tanganyika (Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi).
UNICEF said it was providing treatment kits and conducting community awareness campaigns on hygiene as poor sanitation is the underlying cause for cholera outbreaks.
The WHO is providing technical assistance and helping authorities improve disease surveillance to detect cases, Jasarevic said.
Every year there are an estimated 3-5 million cholera cases worldwide and 100,000-120,000 deaths from the disease whose short incubation period of two hours to five days enhances the potentially explosive pattern of outbreaks, the agency says.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)