A dramatically changing climate doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns; weather changes can also impact rates of diseases like cholera.
The African country of Malawi reported increased rates of cholera among its residents following an especially rainy season in the region. Rather than staying around Lake Malawi, the 2022 outbreak of the disease moved beyond the wet season of December through March and into the north and central regions of the country.
In February, the outbreak peaked at 700 cases per day with a fatality rate of 3.3% — three times the average fatality for the disease. Within a year, the disease killed 1,600 individuals, making it Malawi’s largest outbreak.
Why is it important?
Cholera is a diarrheal disease that spreads quickly in regions with inadequate sanitation and access to clean water. The major storms that hit Malawi, including Tropical Storm Ana and Cyclone Gombe, destroyed access to bathrooms and well water, which caused many families to turn to unsafe water sources.
“Malawi’s water-sanitation indicators were already extremely bad,” said UNICEF public health emergency specialist Raoul Kamadju Kamadje, “but the storms made a bad situation worse.”
The outbreak was also coupled with a vaccine shortage, which caused the coordinating group to change its protocol in October 2022 from two doses to one, which cut the protection window from two years to five months.
“Cholera is just a mark of inequity and poverty,” said Kamadje. “It’s a problem of investment, development, and infrastructure.”
What’s being done to stop it?
The rise in cholera has prompted a response in the region to slow the transmission, including the distribution of vaccines, clean water, and aid. As of June 2023, the cases have decreased. But this has caused agencies to back out of aid in the face of another formidable wet season approaching.
“What climate change means for us as a humanitarian agency is that we cannot do business as usual anymore,” reported Gerrit Maritz, deputy representative for health programs in Malawi. “We are already preparing that most likely, come January, February, there will be another cyclone with a huge flooding event.”
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