IFRC: Cholera spirals in Zambia

IFRC: Cholera spirals in Zambia
17 January 2024

By the Climate Centre

(This story is based on an IFRC press release issued in Lusaka, Nairobi and Geneva on Monday.)

The IFRC this week announced an emergency appeal for 4 million Swiss francs to help the Zambia Red Cross Society (ZRCS) reduce the impact of the current cholera epidemic that it says has put more than 10 million people at risk.

Cholera, which spreads through contaminated water or food, was first reported in October in the province, Lusaka, that includes Zambia’s capital, but has accelerated rapidly since the middle of last month and cases have now been reported in all but one of the country’s ten provinces.

Acting ZRCS Secretary General Cosmas Sakala said: “With increased rains and possible flooding, the cholera outbreak could escalate, and we fear that many more lives would be lost.

“The Zambia Red Cross needs resources to support the government in scaling up interventions such as risk communication and community engagement, enhancing access to safe water and sanitation to curtail the epidemic, and improving community case management to reduce fatalities.”

The Zambian government has said that the current rainy season will probably be “normal to below normal in most parts of the country [but] rainfall distribution is likely to be erratic and uneven, with some periods of prolonged dry spells and periods of heavy rainfall events.”

‘WASH factors’

The IFRC has already allocated 750,000 Swiss francs cash from its Disaster Response Emergency Fund to support relief efforts by the ZRCS, whose staff and volunteers are conducting door-to-door visits, setting up oral rehydration points, and conveying health messages, in collaboration with the health ministry and UNICEF (photo).

John Roche, IFRC Head of Country Cluster for Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, said: “To ensure no more lives are lost, we must prioritize access to clean and safe water. With the waterborne disease spreading rapidly, we are deeply concerned about the situation unfolding.”

In 2023, neighbouring Malawi faced one of its worst cholera outbreaks in years, aggravated by Tropical Storm Freddy, the IFRC says, while Zimbabwe is also currently battling a cholera outbreak that is killing people every day.

The Climate Centre’s Senior Technical Adviser for Health and Climate, Tilly Alcayna, said today: “Climate change is likely to increase cholera risk, with locally dependent WASH factors playing a critical role in a population’s exposure to the bacteria that cause cholera.

“Rising temperatures are also likely to favour the spread of the bacteria, while extreme weather and rising sea-levels rise may damage infrastructure leading to contamination of water sources.”

Last year, the IFRC’s Director of Health and Care, Petra Khoury, wrote that “extreme weather such as hurricanes and floods have significantly disrupted water treatment and damaged sanitary infrastructure, aggravating the most serious surge of cholera in a decade worldwide.”

ZRCS and health ministry personnel meet at the Chipata General Hospital to discuss the cholera epidemic. (Photo: ZRCS via IFRC)