An adviser to the occupied port city’s mayor said Tuesday that its drinking water had been contaminated by decomposing garbage and corpses, increasing the risk of a cholera outbreak.
“The word ‘cholera’ is not only coming from us now, but inside the city,” Petro Andryushchenko said on Ukrainian television.
He added that city officials had received information that a nearby Russian city across the border was preparing infectious disease units in case of a cholera outbreak that could affect Russian troops in Mariupol. "So really, this threat is not only recognized by the World Health Organization and us, but the occupants as well," he said.
In a different TV interview Tuesday, Andryushchenko said Russian authorities controlling Mariupol were effectively shutting down the city and introducing a self-imposed quarantine.
“The situation is really quite dangerous,” he said, adding that he hoped the Russians would allow epidemiological experts, whether Ukrainian or international, into the city to help control the situation there.
NBC News could not independently confirm Andryushchenko’s claims.
They came after Mariupol’s city council warned last week that the port on the Azov Sea was on the verge of a spike in infectious diseases. It said this week that the city was “literally drowning in garbage and sewage” as its central water supply and sewage systems were down. Summer heat has hastened the decomposition of thousands of corpses under the rubble, adding to the problem, it said.
On Friday, the council quoted Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko as saying that tens of thousands of people in the ravaged city could die from dysentery and cholera.
Cholera is an acute disease that can kill within hours if left untreated, according to the WHO. The provision of safe water and sanitation are critical to prevent and control its transmission.
The WHO warned last month about the threat of infectious disease outbreaks in Mariupol, citing information from nongovernmental organizations that the city’s sewage water and drinking water were getting mixed, creating “a huge hazard for many infections, including cholera.”
“The risk of a cholera outbreak is high in Mariupol,” Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the WHO, said in an email Tuesday, pointing to a public health analysis published earlier this year.
“However, we cannot confirm whether or not there is a current outbreak in the absence of a systematic epidemiological investigation and laboratory testing (PCR) confirmation.”
Harris added that accessing Mariupol remains difficult and that the WHO was looking for opportunities to do so through its partners on the ground.
Mariupol residents endured months of heavy bombardment amid the Russian siege that left them with little food, water, electricity or medicine, raising fears of humanitarian catastrophe. Russia took full control of the city last month after the last pocket of Ukrainian defenders surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant.
Ukrainian officials estimate that more than 20,000 people have died in the city.
Amid heavy shelling, many have had to be buried in backyards or in mass graves. Ukrainian officials fear others may have been trapped in the rubble of destroyed buildings, with their bodies not retrieved.
City officials have said that 90 percent of Mariupol’s infrastructure has been destroyed.