— A disease that is rare in the U.S. has been ravaging Malawi and Mozambique in the past few months. The U.S. only sees an average of 6 cases of cholera per year. Compare this with the almost 4,000 cases reported since December 2014 in the East-African region. The death toll has reached 41 cases in Mozambique. Halting the progress of this disease is of vital importance. There are concerns that it could follow the same trend as the cholera epidemic of 2008, which caused more than 4,000 deaths.
The cholera outbreak in Mozambique comes on the heels of devastating floods in the region. Approximately 150 people died in the flooding and over 157,000 were displaced. The floods took down much of the infrastructure in the area. Northern Mozambique was left without power for almost a month before, not to mention the loss to crops and livestock. ReliefWeb, a service of the U.N. OCHA, reports that over 65,000 families are now at the risk of food insecurity. The flooding also hit Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Such environments with scarcity of safe water, poor sanitation and water logging can be a breeding ground for a variety of infectious diseases. Cholera, a disease easily spread by contaminated food and water, is one of them. It is a bacterial infection which can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. The most effective treatment for cholera is simple oral or intravenous rehydration. Fatalities from cholera can occur within hours, most commonly due to severe dehydration. It is a sobering thought that simple treatments can be hard to provide in some situations.
Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) is working alongside UNICEF, UNDP, Save the Children and WHO to bring treatment to those affected and prevent the spread of the disease. The two cholera centers operated by MSF in Tete and Moatize in Mozambique are already at full capacity. The organization remarks on the need for decentralization of treatment. Many areas in these regions were cut off by floods, causing many people in need of rescue. MSF cites the dearth of human resources to man these centers as one of the obstacles in decentralizing treatment.
As with any epidemic, there is a concern that the disease could spread across borders. Tete, in Mozambique, is a major hub and migration to and from the neighboring countries is easy. African News reports that according to the WHO several of the 55 cases in Malawi originated from travels across the border to Mozambique. Many international organizations are working together to contain the spread. Fortunately, cholera is highly preventable by boiling water and disinfecting bodies of water with chlorine. Education of these preventative measures are key.
Man-power and infrastructure are sorely needed in these flood-stricken areas. Partners in Health and their sister organizationAbwenzi Pa Za Umoyo, have committed to providing six months of emergency relief in Chikwawa, Malawi. They say more challenges will come in the near future if the crisis is not controlled.
– Mithila Rajagopal
Sources: All Africa, Bloomberg, Medecins Sans Frontiere, News 24, Partners in Health, ReliefWeb, Wall Street Journal