Fears of spread of infectious diseases among people living in flooded, unsanitary conditions in cyclone-hit southern Africa are growing, where aid agencies are scrambling to get life-saving aid to thousands of survivors.
The United Nations says 1.7mn people are affected by Cyclone Idai, which has caused extensive damage to infrastructure, homes and crops mainly in Mozambique and Malawi and Zimbabwe.
In cyclone devastated areas, there is no electricity or running water, homes have been swept away and roads destroyed by the floods. The floods have cut off land routes and the only way to get to people is by air or water.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned of the risk of outbreaks, already noting an increase in malaria. Other waterborne diseases like typhoid also pose a risk.
“There is growing concern among aid groups on the ground of potential disease outbreaks,” the IFRC said. “Already, some cholera cases have been reported in Beira in Mozambique along with an increasing number of malaria infections among people trapped by the flooding.”
Cholera, which is endemic in Mozambique, is spread by water contaminated by sewage, and can kill within hours if left untreated.
Malaria in particular is likely to spread because the aftermath of the flood there is an increase in stagnant water – the preferred breeding ground of mosquitoes that spread malaria. Standing water also creates a risk of diarrhoeal diseases.
“There’s stagnant water, it’s not draining, decomposing bodies, lack of good hygiene and sanitation,” said Henrietta Fore, the head of Unicef, who is now in Mozambique.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the agency is taking measures to prevent and respond to water-borne diseases and cholera, to control diseases like malaria, measles outbreaks and respiratory diseases.
Conditions in the temporary camps sheltering the displaced are squalid and ripe for disease outbreaks, WHO warns.
“So, there is lack of safe drinking water and sanitation,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said. “That means there is a high risk of a cholera outbreak or other infectious diseases,” he said.
Aid groups said Mozambique has borne the brunt of flooding from rivers that flow downstream from neighbouring countries. At least 65,000 people are sheltering in 100 temporary sites, many of which are in “desperate conditions”, according to the UN.
Many people are said to have not yet received emergency rations, with some still clinging to rooftops and trees, reports said. Because of the high risk of a measles outbreak, the WHO is preparing for an emergency measles vaccination effort to begin as soon as possible.
While WHO and organisations such as IFRC, and Doctors Without Borders have deployed medical staff and supplies to the disaster-struck places in the three countries, their efforts will not be sufficient given the scale of one of the worst natural disasters to hit southern Africa, perhaps even in the Southern Hemisphere, in decades.
Aid workers say immediate priorities are to provide trauma care, emergency health services and to bury the dead. Thousands of people are homeless and in need of shelter. Other immediate needs include food, clean water and medicines.