Philippine health workers headed to a remote southern township Thursday to battle an outbreak of cholera that killed 20 people and sickened 147 others, an official said.
Most of the victims of the outbreak in several mountainous hamlets near Palimbang town in Sultan Kudarat province were children, Mayor Samrud Mamansual said.
He said the first deaths were reported Monday in the village of Milbuk, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Manila, among members of the Manobo tribe who get their drinking water from a waterfall.
The head of the Health Department's epidemiology center, Dr. Eric Tayag, said a team of health workers was on its way to the area with badly needed medicines.
"Right now we're focused on preventing deaths," he told The Associated Press, adding he did not believe the outbreak would spread. "We don't expect this to get any worse."
He said 20 people had died and 147 were sickened.
Red Cross volunteer Marilou Torres, who visited the area Thursday, said those who died succumbed to severe dehydration and that all victims suffered from diarrhea and vomiting.
The area is so remote that it takes five hours by car to reach Palimbang from General Santos City, the nearest medical center 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, plus another four-hour hike to get to the villages, Torres said.
She said the Red Cross discovered the cases after trying to check a report that seven people had died from hunger in Palimbang.
A similar outbreak in the neighboring village of Ligaw three months ago killed eight people and sickened 60 others.
Cholera outbreaks are not uncommon in the Philippines, especially during the rainy season. Tayag said the Health Department has been warning residents to boil water to prevent waterborne diseases.
Cholera is a severe gastrointestinal disease often caused by consuming water or food contaminated with fecal matter.