Cholera outbreak claims 51

A cycle of drought and flood in Malawi's southern and central regions has aggravated a cholera outbreak that has claimed 51 lives so far, according to the UN's Children Fund (UNICEF).

"Malawi is dealing with three crises at the same time: food shortages, floods and cholera," said Dr Eliab Some, who heads UNICEF's health and nutrition team in Malawi. Over 4,000 cases of cholera, a disease associated with poor sanitation, a lack of hygiene and access to potable water, have been recorded over the past three months, mostly in Malawi's southern region.

The south experienced one of its worst droughts in a decade last year, and persistent dry spells have forced people to move around in search of food, exposing them to the risk of consuming contaminated food and water, which causes cholera, explained Some. Almost half the country's population of 12 million were affected by food shortages and the lack of potable water in last year's drought.

Many rural Malawians had also gone in search of employment in urban areas like the commercial capital, Blantyre, in the south of the country, where most of the cholera cases have been recorded. "The surge in the population has led to more pressure on services, and exposure to very unhygienic conditions," Some commented.

Floods in parts of the southern region, where at least a 1,000 families were displaced in recent weeks, also exacerbated the outbreak, according to Malawi's Health Minister, Hetherwick Ntaba. "People do not have access to potable water - we are trying to provide them with water disinfectants, and we have also set up some mobile clinics in some of the affected areas. At the moment we are coping."

UNICEF said although the situation was serious, the outbreak was not as severe as the one in 2001/02, which claimed more than 1,000 lives. According to Some, "Cases of the disease have only been recorded in cholera-prone areas."

The UN body has stepped in provide chlorine for water purification and medication to control the outbreak.