Families and children displaced by Cyclone Freddy in Malawi face the risk of an unprecedented cholera outbreak with a lack of running water, sanitation facilities and open defecation in camps fuelling fears of waterborne diseases, Save the Children warned.
The country was already facing its worst cholera outbreak on record before Cyclone Freddy hit, with 17 people dying in the past seven days alone, bringing the total number of fatalities since March 2022 to about 1,660.
Save the Children had deployed an Emergency Health Unit, with specialised doctors and nurses, to assist in the cholera outbreak but this team is now busy treating people injured by falling trees, landslides and floods after Cyclone Freddy's second landfall.
Palal Areman, deputy operations team lead for Save the Children's Emergency Health Unit in Blantyre in southern Malawi, said:
“The country was dealing with a big situation with the cholera outbreak and resources had been stretched. With Cyclone Freddy hitting, the normal heath care routine is completely disrupted. Children are traumatised by the cyclone, they were brought to hospital with head injuries, broken limbs, and bruises, while others looked worried or had no family members.
“Temporary tents put up to treat cholera patients have been destroyed, putting medical services out of reach for many. I think in the long term with water disruption, the pipes broken and water contamination highly likely, cholera cases will most certainly go up.”
Cyclone Freddy has broken records for the number of times it has re-intensified, hitting Southern Africa for the second time in a month on Saturday. At least 326 people have been killed and 201 are still missing, according to Malawi's Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
Save the Children teams are reporting that the situation remains difficult as several rivers have broken their banks and torrential rains continue to pound affected districts. Blocked roads have hampered search and rescue efforts.
Over 183,000 people, more than half of them children, have fled their homes due to storm and flood damage, leaving them without food and a feeling of safety.
James*,16, from Blantyre, one of the worst-hit areas of Malawi, said: “As I am speaking right now, we don't have food to eat, and we are living in fear because we don't really know what happens next and we feel we are no longer safe.”
There are also concerns about when children might be able to return to school.
Chrissy*, 14, from Blantyre, said: “We were lucky we were outside as the floods came, so we have been spared, but some of my clothes have gone, my school books have been soaked and damaged and I don't know how I will be able to continue learning once the schools open because I don't have any materials. Our house survived the heavy rains and damaging winds as the tropical cyclones made landfall Sunday 12th March, only to end up destroying it the following day. It will be very tough to rebuild our lives.”
Save the Children said funds are needed to ensure children get back to school and provide sanitation and hygiene activities to prevent increasing numbers of cholera cases, with fears that over 50% of those in camps are children and could be severely impacted.
Save the Children's Malawi Country Director, Ashebir Debebe said:
“Children and their families have experienced tragedy upon tragedy, with the worst cholera outbreak on record, followed by Cyclone Freddy which has hit many areas twice in one month. We're deeply concerned that flash flooding because of the cyclone will exacerbate the existing crisis. Thousands have had to leave their homes, and urgently need humanitarian assistance including shelter, food, and safe drinking water.
“Tropical storms like Cyclone Freddy have intensified as the result global warming. It's unfair that countries like Malawi are bearing the brunt of a climate crisis caused by the world's richest countries.”
Save the Children Malawi has been responding to the cholera outbreak in four affected districts. The aid organisation is calling for an urgent injection of funds to avert a secondary crisis.
The organisation will also work with the government to trace caregivers of unaccompanied children and ensure children who are separated from their caregivers receive care and protection services, including psychological first aid.
Save the Children has been in Malawi since 1983 and currently works in 20 of the country's 28 in areas of health, education, food and livelihoods security and child protection.
*Names have been changed
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Save the Children.