Despite risk of violence, Red Cross volunteers continue to try and prevent spread of cholera in Mozambique

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By: Erin Law & Kate Seymour, IFRC

Twelve Red Cross volunteers gather on a porch in Namitotelane village, a rural area of Nampula, Mozambique, to discuss the challenges they face in preventing the spread of cholera in their communities. These volunteers are working to educate people about the disease in an environment where misinformation can lead to violence. During the meeting, they pause to remember two Red Cross volunteers who were tragically killed by a panicked mob during a similar outbreak in 2009.

In February 2009, the volunteers had been visiting households to educate people about how to protect their families from cholera, and to treat community water sources to ensure safe access to drinking water. However, when a community member died from cholera soon after volunteers had treated a nearby well with chlorine, rumours spread and tensions mounted. The Red Cross volunteers were violently attacked and killed.

“We take extra precautions now,” says Teofilo Jose Abacar, President of the Murrupula district Red Cross branch. “Our volunteers know the danger, but they are also dedicated to helping to save lives. We are still one of the only organizations working in this area. This makes it more important that we reach people who are risk.”

In 2015, over 7,000 cases of cholera have been reported across Mozambique, with 51 deaths. Cholera is endemic in Mozambique, but this outbreak, which began at the end of 2014, is larger than average. Nampula is one of the hardest hit areas and is also one of the poorest parts of the country. The Mozambique Red Cross Society (Cruz Vermelha Moçambique) has mobilized 300 volunteers to spread prevention messages, treat community water sources, and send referrals to treatment centres.

Extra efforts have been made to communicate with and gain the support of local leaders, especially those from communities which experienced violence in 2009. Volunteers only go out in pairs and meet every morning and evening to plan their activities. The Red Cross is working with the Ministry of Health to improve health information knowledge and ensure that coordinated messages reach community members.

Despite these precautions, the security risk to volunteers going door-to-door in affected and at-risk communities remains. When asked why they continue to go out in spite of the risks, the volunteers are quick to answer: “This is our community, people shouldn’t have to die of simple things like cholera when we can tell them how to stop it.”

The 2015 cholera response in Mozambique is being supported by an emergency appeal launched by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Seasonal floods affected 177,645 people in Mozambique, with 44,000 displaced. These displaced communities are among those most at risk of contracting cholera. The emergency appeal is currently 68 per cent funded.