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Tropical cyclone Freddy set to further weaken cholera-hit Malawi

A cholera patient is treated in Tukombo in northern Malawi.
A cholera patient is treated in Tukombo in northern Malawi.

Tropical cyclone Freddy set to further weaken cholera-hit Malawi


Malawi’s deadly cholera outbreak could worsen if - as expected - Tropical Cyclone Freddy triggers further heavy rainfall in the south of the country, UN humanitarians said on Tuesday.

“Malawi is really experiencing the deadliest cholera outbreak in its recorded history - nothing less than that - and the country is also struggling to respond to an earlier outbreak and ongoing COVID-19 cases across the nation,” said Rudolf Schwenk, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Malawi Representative.

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In an update to journalists in Geneva, Mr. Schwenk reported that since the outbreak was officially announced a year ago, cholera has spread to 29 districts across Malawi.

“It’s all over the country, affecting more than 50,000 people and over 1,500 deaths,” he said, via videolink from Lilongwe. “Of these, more than 12,000 children have contracted cholera, and of these, unfortunately 197 - almost 200 - have died.”

Storm warning

In a related warning, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that Freddy “will once again bring more heavy rainfall to the south of the country”, according to Malawi’s national meteorological service.

The development will likely create additional life-threatening challenges to communities who are already struggling as the rainy season reaches its height, combined with the fact that it is now the annual lean season in Malawi, where many families have to cope with scant resources.

Despite being a preventable disease, cholera is a “death sentence” for thousands of vulnerable children in the southern African nation, UNICEF’s Mr. Schwenk insisted. Infections are common in flooded areas with inadequate sewage treatment and drinking water.

The situation is particularly difficult because national “resources are limited” as the country struggles to recover from the impact of COVID-19, the UNICEF official explained. “The health system’s overburdened, the health workers are really stretched to the limit since many months; and these are really difficult times for the children in Malawi.”

One in two kids in need

Across Malawi, an estimated 4.8 million children – “one in two children in the country” need humanitarian assistance, Mr. Schwenk warned, noting that severely hungry children are 11 times more likely to die from cholera than a well-nourished youngster.

“By the end of March, almost a quarter of a million children under five are expected to be acutely malnourished, with over 60,000 children expected to be severely malnourished.”

As part of the UN’s response, UNICEF has distributed clean water and sanitation supplies and support, including plastic buckets, soap, water purification tablets, mobile plastic latrines and chlorine bleaching powder, reaching 4,000 people at the Malawi-Zambian Border.

The UN agency has also prioritized six districts based on consistently high cholera caseloads and mortality: Lilongwe, Mangochi, Blantyre, Balaka, Salima and Machinga.