Malawi cholera outbreak kills 750 as world cases rise by 50%

WHO says epidemics 'more widespread and deadly than normal'

The southern African country of 20 million people first reported the outbreak in March last year. AP
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Malawi's worst cholera outbreak in 20 years has claimed 750 lives, the country's health minister said on Thursday.

Malawi is among 31 countries to have reported cholera outbreaks since December, with the World Health Organisation saying epidemics are “more widespread and deadly than normal”.

The number of nations battling the disease is 50 per cent higher than previous years.

Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda on Thursday ordered the closure of many businesses that lack safe water, toilets and hygienic refuse disposal facilities, and announced restrictions on the sale of pre-cooked food.

“We continue to record rising number of cases across the country, despite signs of reduced transmission and deaths in a few areas,” Ms Chiponda said in a statement, urging adherence to sanitation and hygiene measures.

On Wednesday, Ms Chiponda said 17 people had died and that 589 new cases of the waterborne disease had been reported “in the past 24 hours.” She said the country has recorded 22,759 cases since the onset of the outbreak in March last year.

Cholera is an illness that infects the intestine. About one in 10 cases is severe, and includes symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and acute thirst. The disease is easily treatable with oral rehydration or intravenous fluids, but it must be administered quickly.

In the capital, Lilongwe, some people blamed lack of basic services such as safe water and sanitation for the outbreak.

“I was eating and drinking in the markets without washing my hands. I was not cautious, but also there is no water in these places” said 24-year-old Kondwani Malizani, a mechanic from the crowded Ngwenya Township in Lilongwe. He said he was admitted to hospital with cholera last week.

Lilongwe and Blantyre city, an economic hub in the south of the country, have been the most affected. Many public places such as busy markets have no tap water, while people are forced to dig wells at home or draw water from unsafe sources such as rivers and streams — factors that contribute to cholera outbreaks.

Epidemiologist Adamson Muula told The Associated Press that the outbreak is affecting “the very poor” who lack access to safe water and sanitation.

“People who have functioning water closets, potable water from taps in homes and those who fortify themselves by not eating from questionable places are basically not at risk,” said Dr Muula, a lecturer at Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Blantyre. He blamed the ruling elites for failing to invest in infrastructure.

“People who are not served by the municipal water supply system. People who defecate in bushes and other open spaces, drink from open water sources and those who live in communities where the different water companies can fail to provide tap water for days on end are the ones affected,” said Dr Muula.

“Such a disease becomes difficult to control as the bourgeois feel unconcerned.”

The WHO has previously blamed the unprecedented global surge in cholera on complex humanitarian crises in countries with fragile health systems that are being aggravated by climate change. Warmer temperatures and increased rains make it easier for the bacteria that cause cholera to multiply and spread.

Last year, the WHO and its partners switched to a single dose of the standard cholera vaccine instead of the usual two doses due to supply problems.

“Production is currently at maximum capacity, and despite this unprecedented decision, the stockpile remains very low,” said WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He added that four more countries have asked for vaccines in the past few weeks.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: January 12, 2023, 6:26 PM