Floods speed spread of Madagascar's Cholera Epidemic
A cholera epidemic is gaining momentum in cyclone-battered Madagascar. At least 19 people have died and about 500 new cases of the intestinal disease have cropped up. Since two cyclones slammed into the country a few weeks ago, the daily rate of infection has almost doubled on the island nation.
Government officials fear that even more people are infected on the east coast, the area worst hit by flooding. The region had been inaccessible to relief workers and is just beginning to receive aid. The figures also could be off because many families don't report the deaths of relatives, fearing authorities would prevent them from having a customary burial in their ancestral family tombs. To the dismay of surviving relatives, officials are wrapping the dead cholera victims in plastic and dousing them with disinfectant before burying them in a special section of Ampasapito Cemetery in Antananarivo.
Cholera is endemic in Madagascar and, over the past year, the disease has sickened some 23,800 people and killed 1,350 - a troubling fatality rate of about 6 percent. An impoverished nation where only one in three people have access to clean drinking water, Madagascaar long has served as a prime breeding ground for cholera. Inadequate medical attention has relief workers worried that the current crisis could spiral out of control. One man, whose son recently died from cholera, complained to a Reuters reporter that hospital conditions were poor, with up to four children to a bed.
The Madagascar government has barred foreign aid agencies from treating cholera victims, insisting that its own doctors are capable of ending the epidemic. The decision prompted Doctors Without Borders to pull out of the country late last month. "We can not carry out long-term prevention programs at the same time as we stand by and watch people die of cholera for lack of urgent, adequate treatment," an official with the humanitarian group said.
Although government health officials were unclear about how many of the cholera patients were infected by drinking flood-polluted water, they were confident that the unsanitary conditions left in the wake of the cyclones had exasperated the situation. The cyclones brought torrential rains and floods that contaminated scarce clean water and sanitation resources.
To make matters worse, continued rains have kept some areas cut off from relief workers. As a result, residents often go days without health care and safe water supplies. Heavy rains on Tuesday forced aircraft to cancel a mission to bring tons of food and supplies to the northeastern coast. But even if the weather improves, the World Food Program and Madagascar government said that the country doesn't have enough aircraft to reach the worst-hit areas.
Aid agencies are working with the government to improve water and sanitation services and to educate communities on how to prevent cholera. This week, they are distributing water purification tablets and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of flood victims.
The Madagascar government has estimated that the cyclone's torrential rains and floods, which also left more than 130 people dead and more than 10,000 homeless, affected at least 613,000 people.
Just as in Mozambique, farmers were particularly hard hit. "Preliminary indications point to almost total crop losses in low-lying areas," the Food and Agriculture Organization said in a written statement. During the cyclones, heavy winds damaged coffee plantations in major growing areas of the eastern coast. The winds and rain also destroyed cash crops that farmers rely on for their livelihoods, such as banana, orange, avocado and cocoa trees. In addition, thousands of hectares of rice paddy fields were submerged by the floods.
The U.N. General Assembly expressed concern this week over the situation in Madagascar and urged governments to provide more aid to the struggling country. U.N. relief officials have appealed for $3.7 million to cover the costs of the emergency needs, but much more will be needed to rebuild the beleaguered country.
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