The devastation by Tropical Cyclone Freddy is exposing major health risks in the hardest-hit southern African countries where emergency response efforts are being ramped up to provide relief to affected communities, the World Health Organisation said.
The World Health Organisation said more than 300 health facilities have been destroyed or flooded in Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique following the devastation by Cyclone Freddy, leaving communities without adequate access to health services.
The cyclone’s devastation has raised public health risks including the increased spread of cholera, malaria, vaccine-preventable diseases, COVID-19, as well as malnutrition. Support for trauma and mental health is also critical.
Tropical Cyclone Freddy was an exceptionally long-lived, powerful, and deadly storm that traversed the southern Indian Ocean for more than five weeks in February and March 2023.
Tropical Cyclone Freddy hit the coast of southern Africa for a second time on March 11, causing devastation in Malawi and its neighbour Mozambique. Over 500 people have been confirmed dead in Malawi.
In Malawi and Mozambique, the cyclone tore through amid cholera outbreaks.
While cholera is easily treatable, and most people can be treated successfully through prompt administration of oral rehydration solution or intravenous fluids, ending the disease requires investments to improve access to safe water and basic sanitation.
The cholera outbreaks currently affecting 14 African countries are being exacerbated by extreme climatic events and conflicts that have increased vulnerabilities, as people are forced to flee their homes and grapple with precarious living conditions.
Cholera cases have more than doubled in Mozambique over the past week from 1,023 to 2,374 as of March 20.
However, Malawi, which is battling its worst-ever cholera outbreak, continued to record a decline, with cases falling to 1,424 as of March 20, compared with 1,956 the previous week, the global health body said in a press statement on Thursday.
The widespread flooding and infrastructure damage Malawi has witnessed due to the cyclone risks reversing the recent progress made against cholera.
The WHO Regional Director, for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said, “With a double landfall in less than a month, the impact of Cyclone Freddy is immense and deepfelt. While we work to understand the full extent of the devastation, our priority is to ensure that affected communities and families receive health assistance for immediate needs as well as to limit the risks of water-borne diseases and other infections spreading.”
The WHO explained that the extensive destruction, flooding and torrential rains have affected more than 1.4 million people in the three countries and stretched the capacity of health facilities to the limit – houses, schools, roads and other infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged, and swathes of farmland inundated.
“Increased and concerted humanitarian assistance is critical to support the affected populations to cope with the crisis and eventually recover from the disaster. WHO and partner organizations are supporting national authorities in stepping up the cyclone disaster response.
“WHO has provided $7.9 million and deployed more than 60 experts to the affected countries to support the emergency response. Around 184 tons of laboratory, treatment and other critical medical supplies have been shipped to boost the cyclone and cholera emergency response. In Malawi, WHO has decentralized cholera response operation centres to hotspot districts to bolster the disease control efforts.
“The Organisation has also provided training to more than 1,500 health workers in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar on disease surveillance, clinical care and community mobilization to secure public support for the relief response efforts.”
Moeti added that with the rise in climate-related health emergencies in Africa, more needs to be done to bolster preparedness for climatic hazards so that communities can better cope with the impacts of devastating natural disasters.