UNICEF Malawi is on high alert following a cholera outbreak in the southern border areas, where highly-populated camps for people displaced by the floods are located. In January, 15 districts across Malawi were devastated by floods. 230,000 people are still displaced as the rains continue, and 172 people still missing.
Over a period of two weeks, the Ministry of Health has confirmed 39 cases of cholera, including two deaths. New concerns are that a rapid spread of infection could lead to a larger outbreak that already over-burdened health services may not be able to contain. There are also new alarming reports in neighbouring Mozambique (that shares a border with Malawi), which has recorded more than 3400 cholera cases and 37 deaths since 25 December – many of them children.
Those infected with cholera can initially show minimal or no symptoms, but can still contribute to the spread of the disease. After infection, patients experience diarrhoea, vomiting and, in advanced stages, severe dehydration. If not properly treated, cholera can kill within hours and is especially dangerous for young children.
“As humanitarian actors in Malawi, we need to move quickly to stop any further spread of this disease,” said UNICEF Representative in Malawi, Mahimbo Mdoe. “These displaced populations are extremely vulnerable, particularly those with low-immunity, such as malnourished children. UNICEF is working to support the Government with mobile health services, as well as safe water, sanitation and hygiene services, which are critical factors in preventing the spread of cholera.”
Cholera poses a serious public health problem to populations in crowded environments, with inadequate water and sanitation resources. While cholera is endemic in Malawi, no cases have been reported in the last three years. The last time the country experienced a large-scale outbreak was in 2009, when well over 1000 people were infected.
UNICEF Chief of Health in Malawi, Kyaw Aung, says that effort has been made since the beginning of the crisis to prepare for such an outbreak. “UNICEF has dispatched protective equipment, 30 cholera beds, 15 isolation tents, medicines, IV fluids and 1,450 bottles of chlorine in health facilities,” said Mr Aung. “In addition, UNICEF has partnered with various government and non-governmental bodies, including MSF, GOAL Malawi and Red Cross, to implement health care services, health education on cholera, as well as hygiene promotion within the camps.”
UNICEF and partners, including the Ministry of Health and WHO, are monitoring the cases on a daily basis and working with partners on the ground, including MSF, to treat all suspected cases.