WHO steps up response as Cyclone Idai cholera cases skyrocket
Reported cases of cholera have risen to more than 1,000 in cyclone-stricken areas of Mozambique, as authorities scramble to contain the spread of the highly contagious, largely waterborne disease.
Almost 1 million doses of oral cholera vaccine were due to arrive in the southeast African country Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization, in anticipation of a mass vaccination campaign throughout the coming days.
Rob Holden, an incident manager with the WHO, told CNN from Mozambique that the teams were ready to begin the campaign as soon as the medical supplies arrives.
“The logistics are in place, and we will start straight away,” he said by phone.
“Speed is of the essence, we know how effective the vaccine can be. We are as ready as we can be, will be pushing it out as fast as we can.”
He added that the vaccination teams would be administering single doses of the vaccine as an “emergency measure,” and that the WHO has a “targeted plan” to hit cholera hotspots and vaccinate the largest number of people as possible.
More than two weeks after Cylone Idai, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 120,000 people currently living in temporary shelters across the country remain at “high-risk” from cholera and other diseases.
“The next few weeks are crucial and speed is of the essence if we are to save lives and limit suffering,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement.
“We must do everything we can to protect the people of Mozambique from a disease outbreak or other health problems caused by lack of access to essential services,” she added.
Holden, who is in Beira, said that there is a risk of a second death toll if adequate steps to prevent disease from spreading are not taken.
“If we don’t reconnect people to clean water, get health services running, get supplies out to people, the impact this could have on public health is not to be underestimated,” he said.
“It is uppermost in everybody’s mind. What we must do is ensure we don’t have a second disaster from a public health perspective.”
The WHO said it has deployed an emergency team of 40 experts, including “epidemiologists, logisticians and disease-prevention experts,” on the ground to assist in medical efforts.
Beira, a coastal city of more than a half-million, accounted for “the vast majority” — between 70% and 80% — of the total cholera cases, Holden said.
The WHO said that the damage done to clinics in the city had made the job of preventing outbreaks of diseases and illnesses harder, and made the WHO’s mission there more urgent.
“I saw the pediatric ward of Pontagera Health Center (in Beira) had been completely destroyed, the roof had been torn off and the equipment and supplies ruined by water,” said Moeti.
The WHO is also preparing for a possible outbreak of malaria in the flooded areas, and is sending 750,000 insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets to the region.
The Category 2 storm made landfall shortly after midnight on March 15 in Beira, a port city on the coast of Mozambique, with 175 kph (109 mph) winds that brought huge rains and submerged villages as it moved inland towards Zimbabwe and Malawi.
The organization estimates that the cost of medical relief operations in Mozambique over the next three months could hit $40 million.
As of March 29, the United Nations confirmed that the death toll in Mozambique, which was worst hit by the cyclone, was 493 people. A further 259 lives have been lost in Zimbabwe and 56 in Malawi.