Geneva - More than 100 people have died in the past six months in a worsening outbreak of hepatitis E among refugees in South Sudan, the UN's refugee agency warned on Friday.
"Hepatitis E is endemic in the region, but among refugees has contaminated 6 017 people and led to 111 deaths since July," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.
Last November, the UNHCR had tallied just 1,050 cases and 26 deaths from the virus, which is spread through the consumption of contaminated food and water and damages the liver, among some 180 000 Sudanese refugees living in the Upper Nile and Unity states of the fledgling country.
On Friday, Edwards said the largest number of cases and suspected cases had emerged in the Yusuf Batil camp in Upper Nile State, which is home to more than 37 000 refugees and has seen 3 937 cases, or 70% of the total, and 77 deaths.
Most of the remaining cases were found in three other Upper Nile camps, while the situation in Unity State further to the west was "less dramatic", Edwards said.
Edwards pointed out that most of the refugees in camps heavily impacted by the disease were from Blue Nile State in Sudan, "where there are few established toilet facilities and uncontaminated water is not readily available."
"UNHCR believes the growth in the population due to the refugee influx from Blue Nile could be one of the factors in the rapid spread of the disease," he said, stressing that the risk of contracting hepatitis E could be "dramatically reduced" by washing hands with soap after using the toilet, drinking clean water and avoiding eating uncooked fruits and vegetables.
Emergency measures were being taken to curb the infection rate, including building latrines, and increasing soap distribution and access to clean water, Edwards said.