According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cholera is an intestinal infection that ingesting the bacteria Vibrio cholera in contaminated food and water causes.” Inadequate sanitation and lack of safe drinking water is the most common way to contract cholera, which causes severe diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. Although it is an easily treatable disease, it can be fatal without treatment for even a few hours. Displaced populations and overcrowded camps on top of a lack of safe water and medication lead to an increased risk of the spread of cholera. Beginning in March 2022, a cholera outbreak in Malawi infected about 6,056 people with 183 deaths as of the end of October.
The Current Situation
Since 1998, cholera has plagued Malawi, specifically in the southern regions where there is frequent flooding in the rainy season. The current outbreak is the “largest reported Cholera outbreak in Malawi in the past 10 years” and comes after tropical storm Ana in January 2022 and Cyclone Gombe in March 2022, WHO reports. These storms spurred flooding and displacement of an already susceptible population who now lack access to safe water and sanitation.
Over the holidays, the outbreak surged causing 19 deaths on New Year’s Eve and the closure of primary and secondary schools in the capital Lilongwe and the commercial hub Blantyre. In these two cities, one of the main sources of the outbreak is improper drainage systems, which leads to polluted water sources.
The current cholera outbreak in Malawi exacerbates the country’s existing hunger crisis. With around “5.4 million individuals facing hunger,” a lack of sufficient nutrients weakens people’s immunity and leaves them highly susceptible to a fatal case of cholera. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world with 70% living in the country on less than $1.25 a day. In addition, 80% of the country’s population is in agriculture, an industry that storms and flooding deeply affect.
Some of the most at-risk populations during the cholera outbreak in Malawi are pregnant women and mothers with young children as they experience an increased workload and extra risk of infection as primary caregivers. This also threatens the advancement of women and girls in education and economic empowerment as they focus first on survival.
Malawi’s Response & International Aid
In response to the cholera outbreak in Malawi, the Ministry of Health and WHO are conducting an emergency response that consists of “surveillance, social mobilization, treatment, water sanitation, hygiene and oral cholera vaccines,” WHO reports. A cholera response plan and national and district-level emergency operation centers are mobilized nationally. The most affected districts received cholera kits, IV fluids, antibiotics, protective equipment, diagnostic tests, tents and cholera beds.
CARE will distribute chlorine powder for water purification in affected communities as well as supply Oral Rehydration solutions.
On November 7, 2022, Lilongwe received 2.9 million doses of Oral Cholera Vaccine (OCV) for a single-dose reactive campaign to the current Cholera outbreak in Malawi. The OCV campaign targets “adults and children aged 1-year-old and above living in highly affected districts.” The second campaign will prioritize providing vaccines to 14 districts with a large number of cholera cases.
UNICEF joins WHO and the Government of Malawi to strengthen water treatment systems, train health care workers, distribute medical supplies, provide clinical care and raise awareness regarding cholera prevention methods and best hygiene practices. The Government of Malawi has also appealed to the public and private companies and organizations for aid and constructed new, clean water spots in affected areas. As of November 6, around 6,398 people have recovered from the disease, UNICEF reports.
While numbers from January 11, 2023, reported 3,415 new cholera cases, according to Nyasa Times.
– Arden Schraff