BEIRUT - Lebanon took delivery on Monday of its first vaccines to combat a worsening cholera outbreak - together with sharply worded criticism of the crisis-hit country's crumbling public health infrastructure from donor nation France.
By Sunday, cases of cholera - a disease typically spread through contaminated water, food or sewage - stood at 1,447, with 17 deaths, since the first were recorded in the country a month ago, the health ministry said.
Lebanon had been cholera-free since 1993, but its public services are suffering under a brutal economic crisis now in its fourth year, while infighting among the country's faction-riven elite has paralysed its political institutions.
The outbreak has reached Beirut, but authorities say most cases remain concentrated where it started in the northern town of Bebnine, where health authorities have set up an emergency field hospital.
The vaccines would play "an essential role" in limiting the disease's spread, Health Minister Firass Abiad told reporters in the capital as he announced the first batch. He did not specify how many more were on the way.
Standing next to Abiad, the ambassador from former colonial power France said the delivery comprised more than 13,000 doses donated by her government, while urging Lebanese authorities to address the outbreak's causes.
"The origins of this epidemic, in which public health is at stake, must also be treated," Anne Grillo told reporters. The outbreak was "a new and worrying illustration of the critical decline in public provision of access to water and sanitary services in Lebanon."
In the Bebnine field hospital, two young boys sat next to each other on one hospital bed, while a mother waited anxiously to confirm if her son, lying limp on another bed and being treated by a doctor and a nurse, had also caught the disease.
Nearby, Syrian children in a makeshift refugee camp played in dirty water chocked with rubbish and medical waste and fed by an outflow from an open pipe.
The World Health Organization has linked cholera's comeback in Lebanon to an outbreak in neighbouring Syria, to where it had spread from Afghanistan via Iran and Iraq.
(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; editing by John Stonestreet)