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Africa’s cholera crisis worsens amid extreme weather events | News about the climate crisis

The extreme weather events that have relentlessly hit parts of Africa over the past three years have led to hunger crises and displacement. Storms, floods and droughts also leave behind another deadly threat: some of the worst cholera outbreaks on the continent.

In southern and eastern Africa, more than 6,000 people have died and almost 350,000 cases have been reported since a series of cholera outbreaks began in late 2021.

Malawi and Zambia have had the worst outbreaks on record. Zimbabwe has had multiple waves. Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have also been severely affected. Everyone has experienced floods or droughts, or both.

Health authorities, scientists and aid agencies say the unprecedented rise of waterborne bacterial infection in Africa is the latest example of how extreme weather is playing a role in driving disease outbreaks.

“Outbreaks are getting bigger because extreme weather events are becoming much more common,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a South Africa-based scientist who studies diseases in the developing world.

De Oliveira, who led a team that identified new coronavirus variants during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the latest outbreaks in southern Africa can be traced back to the cyclones and floods that hit Malawi in late 2021 and early 2022. bringing the cholera bacteria to areas where it is not present. usually not enough.

Africa Climate Cholera
A girl fetches water from a well in Lilanda township in Lusaka, Zambia (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo)

Zimbabwe and Zambia have seen cases rise as they battle a severe drought and desperate people rely on less safe water sources such as wells, shallow wells and rivers, which may be contaminated. Days after this month’s deadly floods in Kenya and other parts of East Africa, cases of cholera also appeared.

Historically vulnerable Africa is at even greater risk as it faces the worst effects of climate change and the El Niño weather phenomenon, health experts say.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls cholera a disease of poverty, as it thrives where there are poor sanitation conditions and a lack of clean water. Africa has had eight times as many deaths this year as the Middle East, the second most affected region.

“It doesn’t affect countries with resources,” said Dr. Daniela Garone, international medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. “Therefore, it does not provide the resources.”

Billions of dollars have been poured into other diseases that predominantly affect the world’s most vulnerable, such as polio and tuberculosis, largely because those diseases are highly contagious and could cause outbreaks even in rich countries. But that is not the case with cholera, where epidemics remain contained.

Street vendors sell phone cards beneath a sign urging people to protect themselves from cholera in Lusaka, Zambia.
Street vendors sell phone cards beneath a sign urging people to protect themselves from cholera in Lusaka, Zambia (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo)

In what has become a perfect storm, the WHO also said this month that there is a “critical shortage” of oral cholera vaccines in global stockpiles.

Since the beginning of 2023, 15 countries (the desperate few) have requested 82 million doses to deal with deadly outbreaks, when only 46 million doses were available.

Only 3.2 million doses remain, below the goal of having at least 5 million in reserve.

The GAVI vaccine alliance and the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF said last month that the approval of a new cholera vaccine would increase supplies. But the result of the shortage has already been measured in deaths.

While there are currently cholera epidemics in the Middle East, America and Southeast Asia, Africa is by far the most affected region.

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